Orders of the Day — Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 22nd January 1996.

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Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South 3:37 pm, 22nd January 1996

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The Bill has five clauses relating to nursery education and gives powers to the Secretary of State to make arrangements thereto. When I heard about the Bill, I made inquiries about certain documents that relate to the operation of the Bill, if passed, and other consultation papers and administration arrangements. I was supplied with those documents and I passed them to those who are advising me on the merits of the Bill.

I assumed that, as those documents were public documents, I could pick up duplicate copies from the Vote Office today or I could consult them in the Library. I found that the documents were not available from the Vote Office. The Library may have them as deposited papers, and my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench may have been supplied with them, as may other hon. Members. However, I have not been able to obtain them for the purposes of the debate. As papers related to the Bill should be available, I wish to ask the Secretary of State—and I have given the right hon. Lady notice of my question—where the documents were distributed, and to whom. Did they go to the Library; did they go to the Front Bench; and why are they not in the Vote Office?

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

The Secretary of State may wish to make a point further to that point of order. As far as I understand matters, on Second Reading, the Bill is all that is required for our debate. Any supplementary papers that may be of help are usually supplied as a courtesy by the Secretary of State who is handling the Bill. If the Secretary of State wishes to comment on that, I am sure that it would be helpful to the House.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

I shall comment. Absolutely no discourtesy to the House was intended. Sets of the documents have been placed in the Library and they were supplied to the Vote Office. I understand that they have run out, but we can certainly ensure that full sets of documents, not only those that the hon. Gentleman may have seen, but the consultation documents that preceded the drafting of the Bill, can be made available very quickly. There is no problem. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, who is always meticulous about such matters, and to the House. No discourtesy was intended.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment 3:39 pm, 22nd January 1996

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill has two purposes. It provides for the expansion of the education of under-fives; it removes the statutory bar preventing grant-maintained schools from borrowing on the commercial market; and it builds further on the main themes of the Government's education policy. It focuses on improvement in standards of achievement and encouragement of parental choice, diversity and the aspirations of parents and children—all parents and all children.

On all those themes—encouragement of parental choice, diversity of provision, and the aspirations of all parents for their children—the Opposition are in complete disarray. We have heard the shadow transport spokesman enunciating Labour education policy—indeed, I am interested to see the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) in his place this afternoon. It seemed earlier today that he might have been reshuffled in favour of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short). Let us hope that that does not come about.

Nothing now can hide, however, the basic contradiction and deep division at the heart of Labour education policy: choice and diversity for some Labour Front Benchers, but clearly stated and oft-repeated policy intentions to remove that choice and that diversity from everyone else. Small wonder that the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) has found it necessary to resign as chairman of the Labour education committee. As he says in The Guardian today: It was not me who opposed party policy". I am not sure what sort of advertisement that is for the hon. Gentleman's education, but I quote it verbatim.

Photo of Mr Roger Sims Mr Roger Sims , Chislehurst

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the school at the centre of this controversy produced the first parliamentary ombudsman and three Conservative Members of Parliament—of whom I am proud to be one? It has also given a first-class start to many hundreds of young men who have succeeded in the professions and in business. Is my right hon. Friend further aware that just down the road from it is Kemnal technology college, of which I am proud to be a governor? It offers an all-round education to young men, leading to a range of technical qualifications. Are not those examples of diversity and choice in education of which all parents can take advantage?

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

They are indeed. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his rather striking tie—I believe that it is the tie of his old school. I am delighted to hear him speak so warmly of his old school, which is clearly an excellent school with an excellent record. It is of course part of Conservative party policy to promote such schools and to promote diversity. We do not seek to abolish them.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours , Workington

The right hon. Lady spends her time at the Dispatch Box defending state schools. Can she explain why three quarters of all Conservative Members of Parliament have sent their children to the private sector—to public schools—or intend to send them to private schools? If the state sector of education is so wonderful, why do Tory Members buy their way around it?

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

Oh dear, oh dear. The hon. Gentleman will have to do a great deal better than that. We believe in choice and diversity and in the private and public sectors. We believe in access for everyone to independent schools, through the assisted places scheme, and we believe in a diverse system: grant-maintained, local education authority, selective, non-selective and specialist schools. It is only the Labour party that wishes to march back to the 1960s and reimpose the comprehensive uniformity of those drab years.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

Will the Secretary of State come back to the business of the House—that is, nursery provision—and tell us how parents can have a choice if there is no place for their child to attend a nursery school? As she will be aware, from letters that I have sent to her, in my constituency we have requested nursery places, but she is refusing to provide them. Will she explain where the choice is if there are no nursery places for people's children?

Photo of Mr Robert Hughes Mr Robert Hughes , Harrow West

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), when asking my right hon. Friend his question, was clearly coming to the aid of the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), because he clearly believes in choice—at least for himself, as he is listed as having gone to Keswick school; he then chose the Sorbonne in Paris. It is all right for him, but not all right for anybody else.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

That is a shame, is it not? I shall now try to make some progress.

As I said earlier, as Opposition Members should agree, the Bill should be bipartisan. There are some 8 million pupils at state schools in England and Wales. They and their parents, if Opposition Members will allow me to use the expression, have a stake in the system, because schools are accountable to parents, and run by governors who are accountable to the wider community, for the benefit of children. Those parents, governors, the wider community, and, of course, the children, are stakeholders in education, and it is the Conservative Government who have made them so.

Photo of Mr Bob Dunn Mr Bob Dunn , Dartford

My right hon. Friend will be aware that in my constituency I have four grant-maintained grammar schools. If children cannot be selected for admission to those schools on the basis of interview or examination, those schools will cease to be grammar schools. Does she agree with me on that?

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend on that. He makes the excellent point that camouflaged comments about interview procedures hide the intention of Opposition Members to abolish grammar schools, which some of them value for their own children.

I should like to make a little progress. The Prime Minister has made a commitment that new nursery education places will be made available for four-year-olds during the lifetime of this Parliament. Over time, there will be a nursery place for all four-year-olds whose parents wish it, in a state, independent or voluntary setting. That commitment is vividly illustrated by the £390 million of new money that we are making available for the scheme over the first three years, which with the £565 million coming from local authorities makes a total of some £750 million per year, which is a substantial investment.

Phase 1 is already under way. The first children to benefit will start in April this year.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson , Delyn

Will the Secretary of State tell me—before anybody asks, I went to Verdin comprehensive school—whether the number of nursery places in authorities such as my own, where all four-year-olds currently get a nursery place, will be diminished through voucher schemes, which will force authorities to reduce the number of places in the public sector? People will then have no choice at all, because such places will not exist.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

The hon. Gentleman is completely misguided about the matter. If the quality of education provided in nursery schools in his authority is very good, parents will choose it, and local authorities will lose nothing. It is just possible, however, that some parents in his local authority area—as in mine—would like to choose between local authority, independent and playgroup provision. Let me also remind him that, at present, the quality of provision is uneven; one of the effects of the Bill will be an improvement in inspection and standards. Consumers of the service in his authority, as in all authorities, stand to gain.

Photo of Mr Iain Mills Mr Iain Mills , Meriden

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that Solihull benefits from far better provision than the Government's scheme? Will she exempt it, and other local education authorities, from such schemes?

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

As my hon. Friend knows, I have visited nursery schools in Solihull and was very impressed. There is no doubt that, if the parents of Solihull find that provision as excellent as I did, that is what they will choose. The Solihull authority has nothing to fear.

Phase 2, which will apply throughout England and Wales, will start in April 1997.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

I should like to make a little progress, if I may.

I shall say something about Scotland and Northern Ireland later.

The Bill's proposals for nursery education break important new ground in three respects. For the first time—across the board, in all sectors—through the new funding mechanism, parents will be in charge. They will choose the setting—state, independent or voluntary. For the first time, too, all providers in the state, voluntary and independent sectors will be required to work towards the same educational outcomes; and, for the first time, all providers will have to satisfy a common inspection regime.

Parental choice has underpinned the whole range of our education policies. First, we put parents on governing bodies. We gave them a greater chance of choosing a school for their children, through open enrolment. We gave them more kinds of school from which to choose: grant-maintained, city technology colleges, specialist schools, local authority schools, selective and non-selective schools and independent schools, made available through the assisted places scheme. Through local management of schools, we have given parents and governors a much greater say in the running of their schools.

In other words, we have given parents a fundamental share—a stake—in the process of their children's education. We did that because we believe in choice and diversity for all. Some Opposition Members are happy to benefit from the Government's policies of choice and diversity for their own children, while seeking to remove that choice and diversity from everyone else.

Photo of Mr George Walden Mr George Walden , Buckingham

Can my right hon. Friend give a figure for what the Treasury calls the deadweight cost of her scheme—the millions of pounds that will be handed out to well-to-do parents who are already paying out of their private income for children to go to nursery school? Will she also explain why she is prepared to countenance that deadweight cost in the case of nurseries? When I suggested that certain ex-direct-grant schools that wanted to go into the state sector should be allowed to do so, the Government told me that that was impossible, not least because of the deadweight costs.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

I cannot give my hon. Friend a detailed answer in regard to the deadweight cost. What is important is that there is choice for everyone, whether they come from the middle class or not. We want to benefit all people, including people who may not hitherto have thought of going into the independent sector or of being able to obtain high-quality nursery provision. I believe that my hon. Friend will agree that those principles are important. He also knows that my door is always open if he wishes to discuss with me his interesting ideas about closer liaison between the private and public sectors.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier , Canterbury

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way when she has already done so a number of times. Does she agree that not only parents who are currently using the existing private sector provision are better off? My wife runs a successful playgroup, and the vast majority of children go on to our excellent village state primary. They will be very grateful for the scheme, and many parents who are struggling to pay will be very glad of the vouchers.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

It is true that the policies are not designed to put out of business either independent providers or playgroup providers. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point.

We have tailored an education system to each individual—we do not expect the individual to fit a uniform system. The introduction of the nursery education voucher is another step in that direction. It builds on the influence that parents have gained under our policies. It reinforces the key role of parents in choosing the right setting for their children, a principle so firmly supported by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman). It gives them the opportunity to influence the education provided.

Photo of Mr Patrick Nicholls Mr Patrick Nicholls , Teignbridge

Before my right hon. Friend moves on from the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) and speculates perhaps on how the hon. Lady will vote on this matter of choice and diversity tonight, does my right hon. Friend agree that the point about the hon. Lady is not that she is doing the best for her children, which any hon. Member on either side of the House would accept, but that she is claiming rights for her own children that she is committed to denying to the children of other parents? Is not that what makes her action so contemptible?

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

My hon. Friend makes the point perfectly and I think that the faces of Labour Members tell their own story.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

I will in a moment. I have taken about 10 interventions. I must try to make a little progress now.

This country has a long history of nursery education, going back to the Macmillan sisters, Susan Isaacs and beyond, in state and private schools. The evolution of their ideas has produced a rich diversity of pre-school provision through the playgroup movement—now itself evolved into the Pre-School Learning Alliance—in private nursery schools, through the Montessori movement, in local authority nursery schools, and in reception and nursery classes of primary schools, so that nine out of 10 of our under-fives already receive some pre-school education experience.

As I have said, however, it is not part of the Government's policy to seek to impose on that flourishing and varied sector the dead hand of uniformity, nor to seek to put out of business independent providers such as Montessori and others, or the pre-school playgroups that have served young children with such distinction in the past 35 years.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor , Southend East

Does the Secretary of State agree that choice in education is vital and will be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House? Will she try to explain to the House that, if one does not have choice, the only alternative is class segregation? Will she be reminded, in particular, of her experience in Southend-on-Sea, where all my children have attended state schools and where one quarter of all children go to the four grammar schools? If one abolishes those, the choice that we have to enable an able, working-class child to break out of his environment simply disappears. Will she therefore try to persuade Labour Members who are shouting at her that this is good social common sense?

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

I agree with my hon. Friend that choice is vital and that selective schools have an important role to play in that choice and in the quality of education.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

Perhaps the Secretary of State will therefore tell the House what plans she and her Government have to extend grammar school education to every part of England and Wales, and when she intends to bring those proposals forward to satisfy the demands made by her Back Benchers this afternoon.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

That is grand stuff coming from the hon. Gentleman. I should have thought that, given the problems in his party, it might be he who should be bringing forward such proposals. As he knows, however, we are consulting on admissions procedures.

I have spoken about variety and about the flourishing sector that exists for the under-fives. We want to use that variety to encourage partnerships of provision and expertise, and to encourage enterprise and innovation. Good-quality education can be provided in all kinds of settings.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady; the failure in relation to the documents is not typical of her meticulous work. Does she agree, however, that the choice that she is advocating is to be implemented by use of parental vouchers, that the use of vouchers will probably diminish the number of three-year-olds at nursery schools, that vouchers must be given up to local education authorities in infant school reception classes for children below the age of five, and that they are likely to be issued in different colours, one for each day of the week? It is possible that they will be redeemable at more than one establishment per pupil. Finally, there is a risk that they will become negotiable tender. Are not all those points correct?

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

No, and I intend to cover most of them in my speech. The practical details of the way in which the scheme will work are currently being tested in phase 1, as the hon. Gentleman will know. I recommend to him the documents that he has and the consultation material, which will also help him in his quest for information.

When welcoming the scheme, the National Private Day Nurseries Association stated: It will stimulate the market to provide more places. It will give parents improved choices and drive up standards through healthy competition. What we do not want is uniformity of provision, but what we must have is uniformity of quality because this is an education policy designed to improve the achievements of all children: it is not a question of child minding and child care.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins , Blackpool South

On the issue of parental choice and the avoidance of uniformity, does my right hon. Friend agree that part of the hypocrisy of Opposition Members is that they argue one thing to benefit their own children while seeking to deny that same choice to other people? It is a case of, "We are all right, Jack and Harriet, pull up the ladder." Is not their policy obviously unharmonised?

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

We support the right of parents to choose. Labour is in difficulty because while some of its Front-Bench Members seek to exercise that choice, which we support, for the benefit of their children, Labour's policies seek to deny those choices to the children of everyone else. That is unacceptable.

Photo of Mr Roy Hattersley Mr Roy Hattersley , Birmingham Sparkbrook

The right hon. Lady has commended parental choice 10 times in 20 minutes. Does she recall the Prime Minister's speech in Birmingham in September, in which he promised that Church schools would be allowed to change their status without consulting the parents? Is that still the Government's policy and how does it square with parental choice?

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

I think that the right hon. Gentleman has been out to lunch. He has obviously missed the announcement about voluntary-aided schools. We put six options to VA schools and others on whether they would like to have a fast track to grant-maintained status, and on other matters. While they supported the present arrangements for schools going grant-maintained, VA schools did not want to have a special case made for them. As I have confirmed in the House on many occasions when the right hon. Gentleman has not been present—out to lunch I dare say again—in the consultations nothing was ruled in and nothing was ruled out. I made that clear a number of times, and we accepted the views of VA schools and others.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

I must make some progress. I have taken about 15 interventions. [HON. MEMBERS: "Give way."] Very well, but this is the last one.

Photo of Mr Roy Hattersley Mr Roy Hattersley , Birmingham Sparkbrook

We all know that the Church rebuffed the Prime Minister: it was one of his many humiliations during the autumn. Will the right hon. Lady now answer the question that I asked her? How did the Prime Minister's offer of allowing schools to opt out without consulting parents square with the avowed policy of parental choice?

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

Mainly because my right hon. Friend did not make it—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman did not listen to my answer. I said that six options were put to VA schools—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes, I did. Church schools were consulted on the sixth option. It is a great pity that the right hon. Gentleman, who intervened twice, did not listen to the answers that he was given.

I now intend to make some progress. I have taken a number of interesting and jolly interventions, but the House will begin to lose patience if I do not do so.

We are proposing a series of measures to ensure quality. First, parents will be in control. All the providers to which grants will be made will be required to publish information for parents. That will include details of their staffing, admission arrangements and the education programme on offer. Parents will be able to see whether their children will be offered the opportunities that will help them make the most of their pre-school year in just the same way as they can make judgments from the prospectuses of primary and secondary schools.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

I will of course give way in a little while, but I want to make progress.

Secondly, I have gladly accepted in full the advice that I received from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority on the goals for learning for children by the time they enter compulsory education. Different children will of course make progress at different rates, but all children should be able to follow a programme towards the outcome. I want children to start compulsory school excited by the prospect of learning and keen to question and investigate.

Thirdly, inspection is essential in ensuring that there is good-quality provision. The Office of Standards in Education will be responsible for drawing up an inspection framework for recruiting and training inspectors, and for organising inspections and monitoring them. For most non-maintained providers, that will be a new development. For many that think that they already deliver good-quality education provision for young children, that will be an opportunity to demonstrate that fact and to be recognised for it in an inspection report. The inspections will concentrate on the education quality of the places supported by the grant. They should be rigorous but not disruptive, and should apply with equal rigour to all settings. Providers that have been given an initial validation if they have met certain qualifying conditions will get their final validation after a successful inspection.

Photo of Mr Cynog Dafis Mr Cynog Dafis , Ceredigion and Pembroke North

The Secretary of State suggested that consultation was of the essence and added that the Government listened to consultation in relation to Church schools. Can she confirm that the outcome of such consultation in Wales was a universal rejection of the scheme? Will she therefore pay heed to that consultation and make sure that the scheme does not go ahead in Wales at all?

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

I know that there is to be no phase 1 in Wales, but I am quite sure that once parents in Wales have caught on to the fact that parents in England are benefiting a year earlier than they are likely to, enthusiasm will then grow in Wales and pressure will be put on the providers.

There have been some worries that institutions will not be inspected until they have begun to exchange vouchers, but those worries can be set to rest because there will not be free entry to the scheme. Providers will be eligible only if they are a maintained school, a finally registered independent school, a local authority day nursery or an institution registered under the Children Act 1989, and if they agree to these three fundamentals—to publish specified information for parents; to work towards the SCAA desirable learning outcomes; and to agree to regular inspection and work through a self-assessment schedule that shows what the inspectors will examine and gives an idea of what standards are required.

Quality and the maintenance and enhancement of standards are of supreme importance.

Photo of Mr Keith Hampson Mr Keith Hampson , Leeds North West

Does my right hon. Friend remember a report by the university of Leeds four years ago, on the primary education structure in Leeds? Although standards are critical, as my right hon. Friend says, that report highlighted the real problem with state provision as against the flexible and innovative measures that she is proposing. That totally independent report was critical of the way in which teachers felt under pressure to adopt good practice as set down by local authorities. Teachers felt straitjacketed, and believed that their career prospects would be blighted unless they followed that good practice. Does not my right hon. Friend's scheme provide the innovation and flexibility that a state scheme cannot give?

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

I am not familiar with the report that my hon. Friend quoted, but I must say that the scheme will encourage innovation and imaginative co-operation between providers, all of which, with quality assured, will be for the benefit of the children's early education.

When those matters were considered in the House on 21 November last year, the hon. Member for Brightside claimed that, for example, a regime that puts the emphasis on parental choice is "absolute nonsense". Given the events of the weekend, the hon. Gentleman should take up that statement with an increasing number of hon. Members on the Labour Front Bench.

The hon. Member for Brightside apparently believes that a regime that puts the emphasis on quality of outcome, inspection and validation is also absolute nonsense. I cannot believe that he will hold to that after hearing this debate. Does he believe that our aim to increase the number of four-year-olds receiving nursery education is also absolute nonsense? It may be that the hon. Member for Ladywood will have different things to say about that.

I should like to say something about the funding system. There will be a document—for convenience we can call it a voucher or, if it suits the Opposition better, an individual learning credit—which has no face value, is not transferable and is not what lawyers might call a means of exchange. The voucher is an administrative tool for determining the grants to be paid to the providers chosen by parents, in exchange for providing the service of nursery education.

The mechanics of the voucher scheme will be perfectly straightforward. Parents with children in the eligible age range will receive an application form and apply to the voucher agency. The agency will issue a voucher. The parents will choose the provider and present the voucher. The provider will return the voucher to the voucher agency. The validity of the voucher will be checked, and passed to the Department for Education and Employment for payment of the grant.

The hon. Member for Brightside called that scheme an "administrative nightmare". I can suggest only that he perhaps has other nightmares to worry about now—the Labour party's education policies. There are more myths to dispel about the voucher scheme funding.

Photo of Peter Ainsworth Peter Ainsworth , East Surrey

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. She has been generous in giving way and splendidly robust on the subject of the Labour party's education policy. I wonder whether during her speech she might find time to comment on the Liberal Democrats' policy, because we have been told by the excellent Mr. Gareth Roberts, the senior researcher for the Liberal Democrats, that all they want to do is to throw money at education and that their policies are interchangeable with Labour's. That is an amazingly accurate description. Could my right hon. Friend comment on that?

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

That description is likely to be proved during the debate, but of course we shall all be noticing.

There are more myths to dispel about the voucher scheme funding—for example, the claim that local education authorities will lose out. That is not so. Funding will come from two sources: the new money that I mentioned, which is £390 million during three years, put together with around £565 million from local authority budgets. Let me be clear about it: the only money to he deducted from local authority budgets will be the voucher value for four-year-olds already in state schools. If those schools continue to recruit the same number of four-year-olds as they do now, all that money will be returned and the local authority budget will be unchanged. If local authority schools recruit more four-year-olds, the funding will increase. If local education authorities provide what parents want, they will not lose out.

Let me examine another myth. It has been claimed that places for three-year-olds are threatened. That is not so. Local authority spending on three-year-olds is unaffected by the funding for vouchers because it applies only to four-year-olds. Local authorities can continue to spend just as much as now and provide just as many places.

There is another myth. It has been claimed that reception class places will be reduced from full time to part time. Again, that is not so. If local authority schools continue to recruit as many four-year-olds as they do now, the funding will be the same and there will be no need to change the number of full-time places that they provide. Moreover, contrary to another myth, expansion of places for four-year-olds will bring benefits to children with special educational needs. There will be the potential to detect special needs earlier. That will be good for parents, their children and their children's future education.

If recruitment of four-year-olds by local authority schools is maintained, the funding mechanism for vouchers will not touch resources for special needs. We want the places for special needs children to be good as well, so we shall discuss with interested parties the impact of requiring all providers to have regard to the special educational needs code of practice. In the meantime, providers must tell parents of their special needs policies.

Other myths, about the future of nursery schools and grants for pre-school playgroups, can also be dispelled. None of those is under threat. There is opportunity and funded growth for the whole sector.

The plans to monitor standards across the board have received a warm welcome from the pre-school movement. The chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance said: We welcome the plan to bring pre-schools within a common inspection framework which will be regulated by Ofsted". She added: Vouchers will also provide much needed financial assistance to the parents of four year-olds using our member pre-schools". Parental choice will also raise quality. A head teacher in Wandsworth was reported as saying about the voucher scheme: This arrangement pushes me to raise standards. We cannot afford to be lax or complacent. Anything that forces me to give my utmost should be welcomed".

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell , Cambridge

Now that the Prime Minister's plans for fast-track opt-outs for Church schools have been dropped, are we to understand that the Secretary of State has finally convinced the Prime Minister that it is standards, not structures, that are important?

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

Standards are extremely important and a great deal of what I have been saying has been to do with them. What a pity that Labour Members, including the hon. Lady, do not seem to understand that choice and diversity contribute to raising standards—although, of course, some of her colleagues do understand that.

It is a pity that more local authorities did not volunteer for the first phase of the scheme. We have a good selection of areas for a thorough test. The pity of it is that some four-year-old children have been denied an opportunity to have a full year of nursery education in 1996–97. It is a pity for them that the opportunity for more innovative and exciting collaboration between the maintained, private and voluntary sectors has been put off for a year.

Photo of Mr James Spicer Mr James Spicer , West Dorset

My right hon. Friend knows that Norfolk local education authority is Lib-Lab controlled. However, in reply to my investigations it said that it had had no choice but to volunteer because the scheme was of benefit to children. Can she explain why Liberal-controlled Dorset county council, despite being given every incentive to take up the opportunity, turned it down flat, not after investigating it, but on purely dogmatic grounds on day one?

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

That is pathetic and reprehensible on the part of Dorset local education authority. By contrast, the chairman of Norfolk county council's education committee looks forward to almost doubling our nursery provision in the lifetime of the council. More provision is being planned by the independent sector and playgroups, often in imaginative partnerships with the local education authority. I am delighted that all that is happening in Norfolk and I regret that it is not happening in Dorset.

Photo of Mr Jacques Arnold Mr Jacques Arnold , Gravesham

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Labour party, which claims that state provision of nursery education is vital and fought the most recent county council elections in Kent on that policy, has proposed no new nursery units for my constituency? When a grant-maintained primary school proposed such a unit, the Lib-Lab pact in charge of Kent county council tried to block it at every point and it was only my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), who got it through. Where is the great enthusiasm for state nursery education in that?

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He—and Kent, Dorset and elsewhere—will want to look at phase 1 because it gives us the opportunity to see how the system works. We shall be watching the new funding mechanism carefully.

By September this year, two batches of vouchers will have been issued and grant payment will be well under way. There will be plenty of time for monitoring the arrangements before phase 2 starts and evidence will be accumulating from inspection reports.

We favour quality, choice, opportunity and giving parents and their children a real share in their destiny. We are not concentrating on the interests of institutions and their structures for those stakeholders whom Opposition Members favour; rather, we are caring for each individual. I suppose that we might look forward to hearing a little more about stakeholders in this debate. A definition would come in handy, but I doubt whether it would say much about parental choice or diversity. What embarrassing words those are for the Opposition today.

The second topic of this two-topic Bill is the provision that enables grant-maintained schools to borrow commercially.

Photo of Mr Roy Hattersley Mr Roy Hattersley , Birmingham Sparkbrook

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I rise to ask for your protection, as Back Benchers must from time to time against Ministers. Twenty minutes ago, the Secretary of State accused me of inventing something that I claimed the Prime Minister had said, which was that Church schools could convert to being grant-maintained without consulting parents. I now have the extract from the Prime Minister's speech. I do not wish to weary the House with it; I simply want to give the Secretary of State an opportunity to apologise—[HON. MEMBERS: "Read it."] I would gladly read the extract, but I know that the House wants to move on to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), so that we may hear something constructive for a change.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will give the extract to the Opposition Front Bench so that it can be incorporated in that speech. It might then clear the air a little. [HON. MEMBERS: "He already has it."] In that case, I call the Secretary of State.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

I am not sure whether I am supposed to comment on a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

There is no need for the Secretary of State to respond as the point of order was to me.

Hon. Members:

Apologise.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

Madam Speaker has given me instructions, and I propose to take them.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. It is for the Speaker of this House, not other Members, to deal with points of order. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) asked the Secretary of State whether she would apologise. It is up to her whether she apologises or not. I do not force Members of this House to apologise unless they have used unparliamentary language. No unparliamentary language has been used.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours , Workington

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. The Secretary of State is just making a point on this matter. I have already given my guidance on it. The hon. Gentleman should listen for a change.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

For the avoidance of doubt and to comfort the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), he will recall that I said that the VA school sector was offered a range of six options. He will find the word "option" in those used by the Prime Minister.

The proposal for grant-maintained schools to borrow commercially underpins our commitment to the grant-maintained sector and to increasing parents' choice of schools. It adds to the freedoms and independence enjoyed by grant-maintained schools, which they so much value. Those schools are thriving because of that independence. Nowhere are choice, diversity and parental involvement better demonstrated than in GM schools.

Head teachers and governors in GM schools have been pressing for some time to have the power to borrow commercially. They are keen to explore the opportunities for commercial borrowing and to develop their premises further in the interests of parents and pupils. They have many plans for building work in which the ability to borrow could prove invaluable. Those include new sports facilities, halls and other improvements to their facilities. Their building proposals will enhance their educational work; add to the facilities available to the local community; in many cases generate extra revenue, including revenue from dual and commercial use; and enable grant-maintained schools to take part in the private finance initiative and make the capital grant go further. I know that the Opposition support the private finance initiative. They call it "partnership for investment", but it is the PFI to us.

As grant-maintained schools have developed, we have given them increasingly greater powers. We extended their freedoms in the Education Act 1993 and they are now ready for the new power to borrow and charge for their assets. Their proposals will be subject to the consent of the holder of my office and there will be conditions to safeguard the schools' assets.

Photo of Mr George Walden Mr George Walden , Buckingham

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the risk of encouraging grant-maintained schools, which I support, to overextend themselves when they borrow to improve the schools' physical facilities, while under-using their most important freedom—to sack incompetent staff and assemble high-quality, aspiring staff, who are so often lacking in many of our secondary schools today?

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

It is obviously important to have appropriate safeguards and I have it in mind to delegate the power to give consent to operate the safeguards to the Funding Agency for Schools.

The House will perceive that the Labour party is in some difficulty over the issue and over most other aspects of its education policy, as far as it goes. It is facing in a number of different directions at once on the issue of grant-maintained schools and, even for political contortionists, that is difficult.

Despite careful camouflage, the Labour party's official position, so often articulated in the House by the hon. Member for Brightside, is what it has always been: to abolish grant-maintained status and deny schools the benefits of self-government. But what is the unofficial position? Who can say? Perhaps we shall hear it this afternoon. Perhaps, as I speak, there are flurries of activity involving the hon. Member for Peckham, the Opposition Chief Whip, the spin doctors and others.

I am curious to know what, if anything, the Labour party will do about the grant-maintained aspect of the Bill in Committee. I understand that when the proposal was first announced, the hon. Member for Brightside was so impressed that he suggested that local authority schools should be given the same powers. He even tabled a parliamentary question to find out how much that would cost. Does that foreshadow proposals from the Labour party for more freedoms for local authority schools? How much closer does he think such schools should get to grant-maintained status without taking that vital step and opting out of local authority control? All those issues are lost in confusion and disarray.

The House will expect me to go quickly through the Bill's clauses and schedules. Clauses 1 to 5 and schedules 1 and 2 deal with the nursery scheme. Clause 1 is the main provision; it empowers the Secretary of State to make grants for nursery education within the context of the funding regime that I have described. To put it simply, the clause defines "nursery education" as applying to children below the age of five and leaves the precise age range to which the new scheme applies to be specified in the arrangements that we shall be making. In the first instance, the new scheme will apply to four-year-olds, but the clause enables us to extend the age range downwards at a later date.

Clause 2 enables the Secretary of State to delegate the power of paying and administering the grant.

Clause 3 enables the Secretary of State to impose requirements on the providers—including local education authorities, voluntary organisations and independent schools—that participate in the scheme.

Clause 4 applies schedule 1, which provides for inspection, and draws on the provisions of the Education (Schools) Act 1992. That will be a new development for many schools and other providers in the private and voluntary sectors, and a further development of the Ofsted inspection framework for state schools. The existing arrangements for the registration and annual inspection of day care under the Children Act 1989 will be left in place, as will the Ofsted regime under the 1992 Act.

Clause 5 applies schedule 2, which provides for passing on to those operating the scheme the information needed to identify parents with children eligible for the scheme, and restricts its further disclosure. The schedule is modelled on provisions in the Social Security Administration Act 1992.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane , Rotherham

On that point, can the Secretary of State give an assurance to the parents in the four areas selected for the experiment that if they choose, for whatever reason, not to take the £1,000, their children will not be excluded from the experiment?

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the debate. It is good to see him—he has missed the debate so far. I am not absolutely clear what he means by his question, but if he would like to write to me, I should be delighted to reassure him.

Schedule 3 contains a number of consequential amendments. Paragraph 2 introduces a useful relaxation in the existing powers of local education authorities to direct schools as to the times when children can start school. Paragraph 9 provides for necessary adjustments to the legislation in the capping of local authority budgets.

Clause 6 lifts the statutory bar on grant-maintained schools' power to borrow other than from the Funding Agency for Schools and the bar on charging assets in connection with such loans, subject to the Secretary of State's consent. Schedule 3(10) provides that the Secretary of State may by order delegate to the Funding Agency for Schools the power to consent to such loans and the charging of assets. Clauses 7 to 10 and schedule 4 are technical and supplementary.

The Bill concerns the education system in England and Wales. The Education (Scotland) Bill now in Committee in another place contains comparable provisions introducing a similar regime for nursery education in Scotland. The Government intend to introduce appropriate legislation to provide for a similar system for nursery education in Northern Ireland.

The Bill puts the Opposition on the spot. Will they oppose it? Opposition Members may put forward some interesting technical points, which we can look at, but I do not see how—given the fact that they support education for under-fives and some of them support grant-maintained schools—they can do anything but support the Bill.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours , Workington

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will know that Mystic Meg has tipped that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment will be Prime Minister by November. While I understand that the Secretary of State wants to give a good presentation of her abilities to the House, is it fair that she has been on her feet for almost one hour? Is that reasonable, and can something be done about it?

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

That is not a question for the Chair. The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) knows that individual Front Benchers have the discretion to decide how long to speak about a particular Bill.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

No, I shall not take an intervention at the moment. The fact that I have taken 25 interventions—there have also been seven points of order—may account for the time that I have spent presenting this Second Reading speech. I shall take no more interventions.

As I was saying, given that Opposition Members support education for under-fives and some of them support grant-maintained schools, how can they do other than support the Bill? Furthermore, given the fact that some of them appear to enjoy choice and diversity when it comes to their children, can we look for their support? Given the deep division and complete confusion that is Labour party policy, I advise my right hon. and hon. Friends not to hold their breath.

The two measures will increase choice, opportunity and flexibility in their sectors. They will increase the share of individuals in their education. What will the Labour party do? Will it support the measures in the interests of individuals, or oppose them because they are not designed to further the cause of institutional uniformity? For it is institutions and organisations that are Labour's stakeholders—especially their paymasters, the Trades Union Congress. Will the Opposition for once declare for choice, diversity and opportunity—the real measures that enrich society—or will they oppose the measures and remain faithful to their socialist tradition of collective uniformity?

On the Conservative Benches, we have acted on abiding principles. We have extended benefits in which all can share. The beneficiaries include: parents, to whom we offer choice and diversity of education provision; governors, to whom we offer flexibility and the means of expanding education; schools, to which we offer ever wider opportunities; and the nation, to which we offer the prospect of an even sounder educational foundation. Above all, we are offering vastly increased opportunities to children—for whose benefit our education system is designed—to enter and to benefit from the world of learning. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment) 4:33 pm, 22nd January 1996

I begin this afternoon by wishing the Secretary of State a very happy birthday—I sincerely hope that it improves from here on.

The Government's legislative programme is in tatters: their education plans have been either abandoned or shelved, and where the Government continue to implement them they do so without conviction. Two thirds of the proposals that were announced last year as the predicted legislative programme for the coming Session have now been either abandoned or shelved. The Education (Student Loans) Bill turned out to be a fiasco. The Government's proposals to extend grant-maintained status, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said, have already bitten the dust.

The Secretary of State has turned into a Norfolk market gardener, walking behind the Prime Minister like someone following a rag and bone man with a diarrhoeic horse, shovelling up the mess that follows every idea about education that the Prime Minister comes out with.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

It must have been the term "diarrhoeic horse" that got the hon. Gentleman to his feet. Before I give way, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook mentioned the Prime Minister, I shall enlighten the Secretary of State in her belief that the Prime Minister did not commit the Government to a massive extension of grant-maintained status in his speech on 12 September 1995. If the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) will forgive me, I shall read parts of the Prime Minister's speech.

The Prime Minister said: All state schools should gain the benefits of becoming self-governing independent schools".[Interruption.] "Quite right," Conservative Members say. "Where are the proposals for all state schools to become GM?"

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

The Prime Minister said: Many Church schools have already become grant-maintained"— which is not strictly true, as the Church schools will tell you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. He said: More want to. Actually, more do not want to, and they have made it abundantly clear.

The Prime Minister said: Gillian Shephard will next month be consulting about the options", and the options were: a fast track route to full self-governing status". He continued: If a school's governors, with the prime interests of parents at heart, and the trustees representing the Churches' interests, agree on self-government, then they should be able to take that step simply and quickly.

Photo of Mr Bob Dunn Mr Bob Dunn , Dartford

That was consulting.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

I will in a moment.

The Prime Minister said: Nor is today's instalment"— that was 12 September— anything like the final word in the moves towards full self-government for our schools". Apart from the self-evident fact that all six options that the Prime Minister promised on 12 September have been set aside by a Secretary of State who does not agree with him, who did not agree with him and who never does agree with him, the churches rejected all the nonsense about forcing those schools to become grant-maintained because, like Labour Members, they believe that real diversity, real choice, does not involve making all state schools become grant-maintained so that there is only one status and one option.

That is the difference between Labour Members—plus the Secretary of State—and a Prime Minister who knows nothing about education and illustrates it every time he gets to his feet. The voucher system and the minimal extension of the powers of grant-maintained schools link in admirably with the whole Government programme, which has been about dividing one school against another, dividing parents against one another and fragmenting the education service.

Several hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch

The hon. Gentleman—no doubt because he wants to disguise splits in other matters—is making a meal of reiterating two of the things that he said and adding a third. First, he says that the Prime Minister spoke about the option of a fast track; we agree. Secondly, the Prime Minister said that the proposals were subject to consultation; we agree. The difference between Labour and the Government is that we listen to consultation. When the hon. Gentleman's party produced its proposals for church schools last year, it did not consult even the churches.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

I only have to repeat the Prime Minister's words: Nor is today's instalment anything like the final word. Where is the final word? What is the final word? On which of the options are the Government still consulting? Which of the options that the Prime Minister laid out on 12 September will be brought before the House, in the Bill?

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Secretary of State for Education and Employment

The hon. Gentleman mentioned choice and diversity in approving tones, as coming from his party. Will he say what choice and diversity the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) wants, and whether the hon. Gentleman proposes to provide them for her?

Hon. Members:

Answer.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

I am happy to answer. Every parent in every community, whether or not they are a Member of Parliament, should have the right to exercise a preference for their child to go to the school of their choice. That preference should not be blocked by any mechanism that prevents a child from entering that school on the basis of his prior attainment at the age of 11 or on the interview of his parents by a head which then excludes that child because the parents do not meet a particular set of criteria. That is why we are against and will remain against selection, why any debate about selection is a past and dead agenda, and why we will turn to the future to offer every parent, whichever school they approach, the excellence that some have sought for themselves in the past and which others have been denied—excellence for everyone, rather than privilege for a few is the way in which we shall proceed.

I challenged the Secretary of State to indicate this afternoon whether she was going to extend grammar schools to the whole of England and Wales and the blocking of preference through selection to all parents. She clearly indicated that she was not. The only steps the Secretary of State has taken on the selection issue was to extend the 10 per cent. selection by grant-maintained schools to 15 per cent. I want to make the position clear. Do you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, know how many schools from the grant-maintained sector have exercised that preference already available to them?

Several hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

Order. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman is not giving way at this juncture.

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

Order. That ruling applies particularly to the two hon. Members who rose when I was on my feet. It is clear that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) is not giving way at this juncture or in the minutes that immediately follow it.

Photo of Mr Tony Marlow Mr Tony Marlow , Northampton North

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you be kind enough to advise the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave way at least 25 times?

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

Order. I am sure that the hon. Member for Brightside will bear that information in mind.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

I am still answering the last question. When I have done so, I will give way again.

Of the 1,100 grant-maintained schools, 43 exercised the option of even partial selection and 160 exercised historic full selection at the age of 11. Seven million children in 25,000 schools deserve equal opportunity from an education system that provides excellence for everyone. No school is threatened by this party with abolition based on its status. All parents will be able to exercise a preference. All children will be promised the kind of education that all of us expect for ourselves.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

I will give way in one moment. Historically, the Conservative party has pretended to promise to the many that which it has been prepared to deliver only to the few. That is the difference between us.

Photo of Mr Keith Hampson Mr Keith Hampson , Leeds North West

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The noise in the Chamber has been so intense that many hon. Members on both sides of the House failed to hear the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). Did he or did he not say that no grammar school would be closed on the basis of selection?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

I said that no school would be abolished on the basis of its status, nor will it. Children will be able to enter schools on the preference of their parents, based on an open and fair admissions policy that discriminates against no one.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson , Eastbourne

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that lengthy explanation, but as I did not quite follow his remarks, does he agree with that which he wrote in the Sheffield newspaper The Star some time ago? I believe that I am quoting the hon. Gentleman accurately when I say that he wrote, "I am having no truck with middle-class left-wing parents who preach one thing and send their children to other schools outside the area."

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

I am delighted to say that we are in total unity on this side of the House. We are all preaching one simple fact—to lift the standard of education for every child in this country, rather than to have an obsession with the few. [Interruption.]

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

Order. There is little point hon. Members asking questions if they will not stay quiet to hear the answers.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

I refer to the one part of the Bill that does deal with the extension of grant-maintained status.

Photo of Mr Michael Brown Mr Michael Brown , Brigg and Cleethorpes

I can tell the hon. Gentleman all about selection, because I failed my 11 plus and went to a secondary modern school. The hon. Gentleman should answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). What does he tell the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), having said that left-wing people from the middle classes should not do one thing and preach another? Does the hon. Gentleman accept or condemn the hon. Lady's actions?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

I would be delighted to provide the hon. Gentleman with a packet of atenolol. If he gets any more worked up, he will probably need one. I dealt with the questions put by the Secretary of State and by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). I must move on, and I will take questions on the Bill.

Photo of Mr Bob Dunn Mr Bob Dunn , Dartford

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is there any way that the House can be adjourned, so that we may check the record of the hon. Gentleman's answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson)?

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

Order. It does not require the adjournment of the House for anything to be checked. I hope that hon. Members will now listen to the hon. Member for Brightside.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

I have heard of unretentive memories but that beats the band.

The truth is that the Prime Minister, on 12 September, promised a massive change, and the massive change turns out to be—

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith , Chingford

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr James Pawsey Mr James Pawsey , Rugby and Kenilworth

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You have given a ruling that the House should listen to what the hon. Gentleman says, yet he refuses to respond to the questions put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson).

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

Order. The hon. Gentleman has been here long enough to know that it is for the hon. Member who is speaking to decide how to answer any question that is raised.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

The Bill proposes that grant-maintained schools should be able to borrow against some of their assets. On closer examination, it turns out that they cannot borrow against most of their assets at all. They cannot borrow against core functions and, according to the Prime Minister—although his statement may be open to variation—they should not be able to sell off or borrow against their playing fields either, although they would be able to borrow against surplus land and surplus premises. That is an interesting contradiction.

If a school is under pressure and its admissions are oversubscribed, the Government have promised that they will allow it to borrow to expand. Under the Bill, a school that is under pressure, with all its premises in use, no space available and no surplus to be sold off, will not be able to borrow against its assets because its assets are in core use. The only schools that will be able to borrow against their assets will be the ones that are not under pressure, and which have empty accommodation, surplus places and low demand for admission to the school. So the Government have contradicted themselves on their declared aim and principle for the GM sector.

The Government are allowing the GM sector to borrow under the excuse that local authorities can sell lands and premises to raise capital receipts. But the same reason was given for why GM schools, since their inception, have received, on average, two and a half times more capital allocations than maintained schools. Is it both? GM schools have received more money through the Funding Agency for Schools to compensate them. Will they also be allowed special privileges to borrow on the market? Or is that reason a feeble excuse to divide the system again so that a few schools can have a privilege that is not permitted to the many?

I shall answer the Secretary of State who posed a question to me in her speech. Yes, we will consider ways to ensure that all schools have the same facility as will be made available to grant-maintained schools in the Bill. What is good enough for one set of children is good enough for all children. If we improve the standard of building and repair and the provision of equipment and materials, we will do it for all children and not just for 1,100 schools.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith , Chingford

I accept that the hon. Gentleman's personal position is quite clear—he does not approve of grant-maintained schools and therefore, as he has just said, he would not seek to give to some what others may not have. It is wrong to quote people out of context, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is also wrong for someone who seeks high political office to say and preach one thing about schooling but then proceed to take decisions that he would wholly disapprove of?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

I have dealt with that question already. It is quite clear that the hon. Member was not listening to my speech, because I was waiting for him to intervene to give his support for providing the necessary capital resources to ensure that all the schools in his constituency could have the repair and maintenance that they need.

Photo of Mr Tony Marlow Mr Tony Marlow , Northampton North

I do not think that my hon. Friend accepted what the hon. Gentleman said. The hon. Gentleman obviously approves of rich socialists moving their children long distances so that they can be educated under better Conservative education authorities. However, as an egalitarian, does he think it would be right to provide transport facilities so that the poor, the unemployed and single-parent families could enjoy the same benefits as the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman)?

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane , Rotherham

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I came to hear a debate principally about nursery education. Is there any chance that we might discuss that issue?

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

The hon. Gentleman should perhaps listen to all the speeches before he raises that question.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

Just in case there is any doubt, I am in favour of preference exercised by all parents and no block being placed on them. I think that an hon. Member who intervened previously said that he had been to a secondary modern school; that would certainly explain some of the difficulties that he has expressed in the House on several occasions.

On 29 March 1995, the Secretary of State was speaking about the issue of borrowing and the challenge of investment of capital in all schools. She said: Public borrowing must come down if we are to keep a rein on inflation and increase prosperity and jobs."—[Official Report, 29 March 1995; Vol. 257, c. 1042.] Perhaps the Secretary of State and her underlings could tell the House—

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

They may be colleagues to her, but they are underlings to me. My right hon. and hon. Friends are my colleagues.

Perhaps the Secretary of State can tell the House why the restrictions on borrowing and the need to prevent pressure on the public sector borrowing requirement by not spending money on repair and maintenance apply only to some schools and parts of the education service and not to others.

But the Bill is primarily about nursery vouchers. It is patently obvious that there was a time when the Conservative party was wholly committed to nursery education. A certain Secretary of State committed the party to providing a nursery place for all three and four-year-olds and to the investment to provide that service. That Secretary of State became Prime Minister and that promise was broken. In fact, the party turned away from a commitment to nursery vouchers and it condemned nursery education.

The current Secretary of State has said that there was no evidence that nursery education improved the future well-being of the children and was therefore not a useful investment. In fact, it is only a year ago almost to the week since the Secretary of State sent a letter out to her colleagues suggesting that they should mark, learn and report back on Labour authorities that were spending money on nursery education because it was not a statutory service and was therefore diverting money from the rest of the education system.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice , Lewisham East

Will my hon. Friend confirm his commitment to setting a target that will ensure that all three-year-olds who will be excluded by the Government's nursery voucher system will, under a Labour Government, be assured of places in nursery schools?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

I am delighted to give that commitment. Our commitment is clear; it is not a paper promise. We will set targets to achieve, for every three and four-year-old whose parents want it, a free, properly provided, highly qualified nursery education place.

Photo of Hilary Armstrong Hilary Armstrong Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson

Does my hon. Friend share my concern at the fact that the current proposal puts in jeopardy the education of three and four-year-olds in certain local authority areas? I refer to those in which all four-year-olds are receiving a full school day and many three-year-olds—about 65 per cent. of them in my authority—are already receiving nursery education on a half-day basis.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

Nationally, the proposal puts at risk at least 133,000 places for three-year-olds. It undermines the role of authorities already providing places. It would be impossible to dream up a worse scheme. It provides no capital investment for facilities, and no training for those who need it to be able to deliver high quality education. It provides no resources or support for special needs nursery provision.

Photo of Mrs Angela Rumbold Mrs Angela Rumbold , Mitcham and Morden

A few moments ago we all heard the hon. Gentleman make a commitment to ensuring that every three-year-old has a place in nursery education, should there ever be a time when the Labour party forms an Administration. I should be most grateful if the hon. Gentleman told us how much it is going to cost.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

The first tranche of money would come from removing the bureaucratic nightmare surrounding this voucher scheme. It has been described by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) as the "deadweight cost" of administration. The pilot scheme involves administrative and inspection costs of £5 million. Divided by the 17,000-odd places in the pilot authorities, it turns out that the administrative and inspection costs of each place will amount to a staggering £290. Under the full phase 2 scheme, such costs will amount to an equally staggering £187 million—more than the total amount provided in new cash by the Government for the first full year.

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch

I saw the hon. Gentleman's press release giving these figures this morning. I am afraid that he has misunderstood the position. A great chunk of that £5 million is for inspection and setting up the inspection scheme, including recruiting and training inspectors for phase 2. Dividing the sum solely over phase 1 is therefore either ignorant or misleading.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

Let me get this clear: the money allocated in the pilot phase—during which the Government were going to test the applicability of the scheme—is not, according to the Minister, actually to be used on inspection or administrative costs for the pilot. It is instead to be used for the administrative and inspection costs of phase 2 of the scheme, which comes in the year after.

That being so, why are those applying to join the scheme as providers not being inspected before they come on stream as new providers? Why, instead, is light-touch inspection allowing them to self-assess their worthiness to take part in the nursery voucher scheme? The "next steps" document makes it absolutely clear that they can self-assess for what are described as "in-house purposes". They do not have to send in the validation form to qualify. Providers may have to be inspected in the first two years during the second phase—but not before they come on stream.

So are we being told that inspection costs are to be incurred for providers that are not going to be inspected, given that they can assess themselves before coming on stream? If so, I shall refer the whole matter to the National Audit Office as a scandal.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is well aware that I share his aspiration to provide high-quality early-years education for every three and four-year-old whose parents want it. But is he aware that such provision would require 18,000 additional teachers, 22,000 additional ancillary assistants and—best estimates suggest—additional expenditure of £900 million? Is the hon. Gentleman's party about to commit itself to providing that much funding?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

The hon. Gentleman's party seems to have spent its commitment about 10 times over already. He is right about one thing though: after four years of cutting provision for nursery and primary school teachers and reducing their number in the current year by 800, the Government are ill prepared to expand the nursery scheme in coming years with properly trained and professionally provided nursery teachers.

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch

I am trying to clarify this point for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman and, if necessary, the House. We cannot carry out inspections without inspectors. It will take time to recruit them; they cannot start inspecting until the Bill receives Royal Assent. Much of the cost of establishing the framework and the training inevitably falls during phase 1.

As for the hon. Gentleman's other point, there is a straight trade-off. He implied that no nursery providers should be able to take vouchers until they have been inspected. He must therefore tell thousands of parents of four-year-olds who are expecting a decent nursery education for their children with established providers that they will not be able to get one. That is a bad answer; what we have set out is a reasonable framework.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

The problem with that is that if the Government really want to achieve their stated goals they will take up the offer made by my party and the local authority associations and allow the development of nursery education plans at local level. In that way all sectors—voluntary, private and statutory—could join to build on what is already in place. Instead of a piece of paper we should then have not just the £165 million that has already been committed but the £20 million earmarked for administration and bureaucracy, with which to provide the extra places to enable us to meet our goal.

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch

What about inspections?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

If the Minister is so concerned—we are, because he is way behind with primary inspections already—let us join together to find a way of developing the current system at local level and expanding it. The Government's problem has to do with bureaucracy, the difficulties of inspection, insisting on paying those already buying privately, and the possible entry into the system of fly-by-nights who want to gain the voucher income. These factors combine to make it less likely that the proposal will succeed.

If the Government are so concerned about the failure to develop the system and recruit inspectors, why not abandon this scheme until they are in a position to implement it in a way they think fit? Why rush ahead with a pilot project that turns out not to be a pilot? Instead, it is just phase 1 of a scheme that the Government are already engaged in implementing.

Photo of Mr George Walden Mr George Walden , Buckingham

One small point: the hon. Gentleman inadvertently misquoted me earlier. I was complaining about the fact that the Government are going to hand out millions of pounds to people who can already afford to pay for private education. The hon. Gentleman said that I was complaining about the administrative costs of the system.

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman—and with some sympathy. As he knows, I am something of a critic of Government education policy and of this policy in particular. I get the impression, however, that the hon. Gentleman does not realise the gravity of his party's situation or the impact of the action by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) on the country. Does not he understand that it goes to the core of the whole discussion about education in Britain, namely, selection? His position, I am sorry to say, and that of his Front Bench is morally and intellectually contemptible.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Employment)

I accept the hon. Gentleman's correction, while agreeing entirely with his point about the deadweight costs. In response to his second point, I refer him to the words of the Secretary of State, who said that she wanted uniformity of quality in nursery education. I believe her—but it is what I want for all children in all schools at whatever stage.

The Government could not have found a more convoluted way of trying to deliver nursery provision to four-year-olds. They are taking £548 million away from authorities that are already making provision, on the basis of that provision for four-year-olds, and are distributing it away from those authorities that have provision and are already making it and giving it to those authorities that do not have provision and are not making it. They are offering people not a place, but a piece of paper promising that they can have a place in an area that does not have a place. They then call it a choice when they do not even have a place for them, let alone a choice between providers. The slogan is simple—no place, no choice; no place, no nursery provision.

Of course, it is not a matter of choice. There is already choice in those authorities, like Solihull, that are already providing. The only people anywhere near being able to provide choice and diversity are those already providing places for three and four-year-olds. What will happen to them? Money will be taken away from them so that it can be recycled through an administrative nightmare—and that is what it is. Large sums of public money will be spent by a private company on recycling literally tens of millions of bits of paper.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) rightly said that vouchers will be provided on a termly basis, to be redeemed on a weekly basis, with five different voucher segments, able to be delivered to different providers if necessary on a daily basis for a part-time place. Who invented that? Who could have dreamt up anything so bizarre as a system that results in spending public money on recycling bits of paper?

Children want nursery places; they want investment in facilities to provide nursery places; they want trained and qualified staff to support them in those places. Properly provided nursery education, integrated with care and available where and when parents need it, is the first and essential foundation for a decent education system for all our children and equality for all our children.

I repeat that the Labour party has offered to sit down with the Government and with all the providers that come forward to work out a system to provide such places for our three as well as our four-year-olds. We need to ensure that we invest in education rather than in a bureaucratic and administrative system which, frankly, will fall flat on its face at the expense of those tiny children who deserve a better start in life.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley 5:14 pm, 22nd January 1996

This debate could not have come at a more difficult and embarrassing time for the Labour party. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who tried to fashion a sensible and coherent education policy for his party. Much of that policy has been based on the abandonment of previous opposition to the core reforms that I was privileged to introduce in 1987–88. At that time, the hon. Gentleman's predecessors opposed national curriculum tests, league tables, grant-maintained schools, delegated budgets and city technology colleges. Now, in effect, the Labour party has accepted most of those reforms, but with some significant changes in detail. I recognise that that acceptance is due to the hon. Gentleman's influence.

Today, the hon. Gentleman was forced to engage in linguistic distortions to try to reconcile his views and those of the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman). It did not work. His rhetoric was divorced from the reality of performance. If it is right for the son of the Leader of the Opposition to go to a grant-maintained school—I do not object to such choice: it is a good school, one of the best in London; indeed, I know its headmaster—it must also be right to make that choice available to the wide range of parents throughout the country. If it is right for the son of the hon. Member for Peckham to go to a grammar school—a very good grammar school indeed—it must also be right to make that choice available to all parents and that it should be exercised. That is the dilemma that faces the hon. Member for Brightside and his party.

I ask my hon. Friends not to be too hard on the hon. Member for Peckham—

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

The hon. Member for Peckham has not been embarrassed by scruple, hindered by consistency or hampered by collective responsibility; she has done what every mother has always done and chosen what she believes to be the best school for her children. That is not new Labour, it is not old Labour—it is primeval. It goes back to basic instincts and the grain of human nature. We should not chastise her too much, but instead welcome a convert.

Photo of Mr Michael Brown Mr Michael Brown , Brigg and Cleethorpes

My right hon. Friend possibly got the wrong idea from my earlier intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). I want to make it absolutely clear that I make no criticism of the action of the hon. Member for Peckham. My hon. Friends should welcome what she has done. What concerns me is that she may well vote against the Bill tonight. If she votes against the Bill and opposes choice in education for everybody else, we must be concerned that her actions do not express her views.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

It behoves everyone in public life to match personal behaviour with political commitment. If the hon. Member for Peckham fails to do that, she will have to answer to her constituents, to her conscience and, presumably, to her shadow Cabinet colleagues.

When I read about the hon. Lady in the newspapers over the weekend, I recalled something that George Orwell wrote in an essay in 1945—that the trouble with all socialists is their inability to tell the truth about the immediate future. I cannot help but feel that that is the dilemma facing the Labour Front Bench today. The Bill is about parental choice. The Labour party has accepted many of the reforms that I introduced seven or eight years ago, but—this is the sticking point—it does not believe in parental choice.

Photo of Mrs Elaine Kellett Mrs Elaine Kellett , Lancaster

As the Leader of the Opposition has opted for a grant-maintained school for his son, and as his colleague the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) has done the same for hers, why was there such a virulent and intimidatory campaign in the constituency of the Leader of the Opposition by Labour workers trying to stop Hurworth comprehensive school becoming grant maintained?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

Again, that goes to the central dilemma facing the Labour party, which it cannot resolve. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) described the attitude of the hon. Member for Brightside as not being morally defensible. I agree. I do not believe that the stance taken by the Labour party on this matter is morally defensible. It must decide between giving choice to parents and not giving choice to parents. What we mean by choice is a choice between the local comprehensive school, the local grant-maintained school, the grammar school, the church school, the single-sex school and the city technology college.

That was the choice which, among other things, my reforms made available to a variety of parents. They did not deny parents choice. The Labour party will not really accept that. It wants conformity. We can see that from its opposition to the Bill. It does not want nursery education to be provided other than by the local education authority. That is what the hon. Member for Brightside committed himself to. He gave a commitment which, I dare say, someone in central office is already costing, for free nursery education for three and four-year-olds. When I asked my officials, back in 1987, what it would cost, the answer then was £1 billion, allowing for capital as well. I have no idea what the latest figure is, but it must be more than that. It is a great deal of money. Indeed, it has absorbed the Liberal penny in one fell swoop. I assure the hon. Gentleman—

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

Perhaps I might pursue my arguments for a moment, because I am warming to the task.

If the hon. Member for Brightside ever has responsibility for this area of policy and goes to the Treasury, it will not say, "We are committed to nursery schools. What a wonderful idea. Here's a cheque for £1 billion." Would not my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State love to have such a cheque? She had to fight very hard for £937 million, let alone £1 billion.

I see some distinguished former leaders of local education authorities present on the Opposition Benches. They know that, if the money were given to local education authorities, there is no indication that it would be spent on nursery schools because of the demands of primary schools, secondary schools and colleges of further education, all of which would be knocking at their door.

When I heard the hon. Member for Brightside oppose the two principles of the Bill today, I could not help feeling that I was hearing the voice of his predecessors, who opposed me. Labour opposed a measure which, later, it accepted. I believe that it will accept both the principles—

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I shall develop my argument for a moment.

I want to deal with grant-maintained schools borrowing. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on getting the Treasury to abandon a bit of Treasury doctrine, which is that state assets cannot be allowed to borrow in the public market. I fought endless battles with Chief Secretaries over that—because I thought that it was rubbish—and I lost in most, but not all, cases.

My right hon. Friend has won. I congratulate her on allowing that freedom to grant-maintained schools. It is the beginning of a chink, and the hon. Member for Brightside should not toss it away lightly. Grab it while it is going. It is a victory against the Treasury and that should bring us all together.

I want now to deal with nursery vouchers, because they go to the heart of the philosophy that divides our two parties. We have heard a great deal about stakeholders. What is a stakeholder in education? It is a parent who can choose between a variety of schools that are funded by the state. It is a student who can choose between a variety of courses at different institutions—that has been provided, and there has been significant expansion of the sector during the past 10 years. It is a trainee who has a training credit that enables him or her to choose the course that he or she wants. When it comes to nursery education, a voucher holder is a stakeholder. If words mean anything, that is the definition of a stakeholder.

I mentioned George Orwell earlier. The question is: is a voucher holder a stakeholder? The obvious answer is yes, but the Labour party cannot admit that. It does not want to admit it, yet this is a progressive step forward.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I shall give way shortly to the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have an affection, as he beat me once in a general election but lost the seat that I lent him for a time.

The first thing about a stake is that it is a sum of money. A voucher is a sum of money. Secondly, it belongs to the parents. Thirdly, it gives the parents power. That is what a stake is all about, is it not? It enhances the responsibility of parents for the education of their children under five. Fourthly, it achieves socially desirable aims. If the word stakeholder means anything, a nursery voucher holder is a stakeholder.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way—it was indeed me who beat him and took a seat away from him.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the only parental choice worth having in education is that between equivalence of excellence? That, alas, we do not have. Does he agree that a nursery voucher is not for nursery education as we know it today, as provided by local education authorities such as Newham and Solihull, but a voucher for a form of pre-school activity provided by a number of different providers? Because of the withdrawal of the standards of accommodation, and probably the standards of training for qualified nursery teachers, the voucher will not be for nursery education as we know it today and it is a con if those words are used.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I do not agree. We have here a basic division between the perceptions of the two parties. I believe that choice and variety are some of the elements that improve standards—they do not do it on their own—which is why I introduced the national curriculum and testing. External standards were needed, as was an injection of greater involvement by parents and governors, which many—but not all—Opposition Members voted against. Wherever there is choice, standards rise.

We introduced the concept of grant-maintained schools, not to give the luckiest children the best break, but to establish levers whereby the quality of education for all our children would be improved by imitation of other schools in the area. That has happened in many cases, as hon. Members on both sides of the House will know.

I strongly support the voucher scheme. In fact, some of the preliminary work on it was done by my Minister of State in the 1980s. We could not introduce it then, however, because we were doing so many other good things. We could not crowd the legislative programme with such excellence, but now there is time to do it. I support the scheme strongly, but there are two deficiencies. First, in due course—not immediately—it must be extended to three-year-olds. I am sure that all hon. Members would like that. I do not object to the fact that three-year-olds are not included in the first year of the scheme—I congratulate my right hon. Friend on starting the scheme, as one has to start somewhere. Clearly, after it has been established—after due process of time; in the foreseeable future, both of which are phrases that the Treasury loves to use—it will be extended to three-year-olds, as it should be. I hope that some undertaking will be given on that.

My second reservation relates to special education. I listened carefully to what my right hon. Friend said about children who are severely disabled, blind, visually impaired, deaf or seriously physically disabled. She wants greater monitoring and better recording of children below the age of five. I should, perhaps, declare an interest in that, for the past year, I have been raising money for a school for the blind in Kent. Collectively, we raised £500,000 to establish a nursery school. The school is a centre of excellence and is recognised throughout the land as very special.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge , Barking

indicated assent.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I believe that the hon. Lady, who is nodding, has visited it.

We raised the money from charitable sources so that we can build a building. It will take children in. There is plenty of evidence to show that if children who are blind, visually impaired, deaf, physically disabled or have other disabilities are taken in early enough, they are given a better start in life. I want the scheme to embrace such schools. There are few special nursery schools in the country. I believe that the voucher for such children should not be the standard £1,100, but should recognise the enormous extra costs involved in teaching children with disabilities.

In a nursery school, there is broadly one teacher to 10 children. A special school needs one teacher and two assistants for five children. The children need constant attention. They often need nursing. They have a short concentration span. They need love and devotion. I very much hope that my right hon. Friend will consider introducing an enhanced voucher—a value—added voucher, say three times the standard value—for the parents of children who are most seriously visually impaired or totally blind, or those with other difficulties. For the less visually impaired, and for those who are less severely disabled, I hope that my right hon. Friend will introduce a voucher of £2,200.

The cost would be minimal: I estimate that fewer than 3,000 children—certainly not much more than that—are involved. By such action, my right hon. Friend and the Government could bring real benefit to some of the most underprivileged children in the country, who face exceptional problems.

With those two provisos, I warmly support the Bill, and congratulate my right hon. Friend. I urge Labour Members to support both its proposals, once they have overcome this little linguistic trouble—over the next few days, perhaps, although we shall drag it out for weeks, months and possibly years, because the target is too good to miss.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson , Plymouth, Devonport 5:30 pm, 22nd January 1996

It is a pleasure to follow someone as distinguished as the right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker). Those of us who aspire to great things in public life may eventually have one day named after us, but five days are named after the right hon. Gentleman—the five "Baker days" that schools endure each year.

In the spirit of cross-party harmony, which I often try to introduce in the Chamber, and to help to dispel the idea that debate here always involves disagreement, I shall congratulate the Government and Conservative Back Benchers on their change of heart in regard to nursery education. At least there is now cross-party support for the principle. I recall that, back in 1994, the Prime Minister said at the Tory party conference: There are many views about nursery education"— I think that he was talking about his own Back Benchers— But my view is quite clear. I am in favour of it. That, however, was not the view of his Minister of State earlier that year. I was in the Chamber when the Minister of State accused my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) of being "obsessed" with nursery education, which did not sound like someone who was in favour of it.

I also recall being told, in 1993 and early in 1994, by Ministers that there was no evidence of the benefits of nursery education. I hope that the claim that there is no evidence of a link between class sizes and the quality of education will suffer the same fate as the statement about nursery education. There is an absolute connection between the quality of education and nursery places.

Photo of Mr Keith Hampson Mr Keith Hampson , Leeds North West

To prove the point, that was stressed in the first White Paper produced by Lady Thatcher when she was Secretary of State for Education. It remained a commitment until it was thrown off course by the oil price spiral crisis in 1972, then it was killed in 1976 by the Labour Government, through the International Monetary Fund.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson , Plymouth, Devonport

Lady Thatcher did many things. At that time, she advocated nursery places to the Government. As so much has been said about the subject today, I shall point out that she closed more grammar schools than any Minister at any time, Ministers consistently denied that there was some value in nursery education, as she had said in the early 1970s, but it is interesting that, as Prime Minister, she was far less enthusiastic about nursery education, and her earlier comments never saw the light of day again.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on changing the minds of her fellow Ministers. On occasion—today, for instance—she has the stern eye of a headmistress. I sometimes think that, with one glance, she could quell an unruly class that was out of control; indeed, some say that she could control an unruly political party that was out of control, but I am sure that that view will be revised following her performance at the Dispatch Box today. Nevertheless, we welcome the inspired conversion of Tory Members—a flash of light on the road to the ballot box.

There is no doubt about the benefits of nursery education. Research carried out in the American High Scope programme suggests that it has many beneficial features. Later in life, children who have received such education are less likely to turn to crime and drugs, and more likely to have jobs, secure families and many other assets. Nursery education gives children a head start, especially in crowded inner cities where young children no longer enjoy the opportunity to play safely in the street, as many hon. Members probably did. Nowadays, many parents will not allow their children to play outside because they fear what may happen to them. Sadly, such children—especially those who live in high-rise flats in some of the less stimulating parts of our cities—are fed a constant diet of television and computer games.

When the Education Committee visited Japan in 1994, we asked the Japanese what they considered valuable in education in the early years of childhood. They said, unequivocally, that education taught children to socialise and work together and, above all, enabled them to learn the discipline of an ordered environment. The Select Committee's report—first published in 1989, and revised in 1994—recognised the value of nursery education, and reinforced those points.

The benefits are enjoyed by mothers as well as children. Some mothers, through no fault of their own, may have limited parenting skills, and may be bringing up their children alone. The links between mother and school are closest at the nursery stage; strong bonds are often formed between teachers and parents. That relationship can have a very positive influence on mothers, and I commend the wider spread of nursery education on that ground as well.

Although the Bill contains the right medicine, the medicine is wrongly administered. A small amount of extra funds will go into the scheme, but, like my Front-Bench spokesman and Conservative Back Benchers, I fear that much of that small extra sum will be swallowed up in bureaucracy, and that much of the good provision that exists in many parts of the country will be threatened by a Government who, having cast off their prejudice against nursery education, cannot finally overcome their deep disdain for locally elected, democratically controlled local government.

The voucher scheme will, unfortunately, undermine what could have been a welcome advance. I note that just one of the authorities involved in the pilot scheme will receive funding directly from the vouchers—the authority of the Secretary of State. Opposition Members understand why she is not giving money directly to Wandsworth and Westminster.

Photo of Mr Graham Riddick Mr Graham Riddick , Colne Valley

Bearing in mind the position of the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) in the shadow Cabinet, does the hon. Gentleman agree with the decision that she has made about her son?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson , Plymouth, Devonport

That subject has been discussed enough in the Chamber today and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) has given an excellent answer. I shall stick to what is in the Bill, rather than make petty, cheap attacks on other hon. Members who choose to send their children to various schools. I would not criticise any of my constituents on those grounds, and I would not expect any hon. Member to criticise his constituents or any other hon. Member.

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch

I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman's speech and its tone. Lest there be any suspicion, may I explain that he has hit on one of what may be several ways in which phase 1 will be run differently in different authorities. There is nothing suspicious about it. It is simply that we are taking advantage of the pilot nature of phase 1.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson , Plymouth, Devonport

I am interested to hear that the Government are taking advantage of the pilot scheme, but the intention in the Bill is that the scheme will be introduced before we know about the success or otherwise of the pilot scheme. Perhaps the Minister will tell us in his winding-up speech how he will learn from the pilot scheme before it has finished.

There is a cruel irony in the voucher scheme in that it will take most funds from those good authorities that currently have the highest provision, and give them to authorities that have the lowest provision. Funds will go from Labour local authorities that have high provision to the tiny handful of Tory authorities that have the lowest provision.

May I say, in case the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) falls asleep, that the Liberal Democrats can claim no particular supremacy in this matter. They often pay lip service to education but, as usual, there is no co-ordinated approach to Liberal Democrat policy—the general principle is that there is a different policy on every doorstep. The Liberal Democrat councils with the longest experience of running education—the Isle of Wight and Cornwall—have the lowest nursery education provision in Britain.

May I help the hon. Member for Bath to refute the scurrilous rumours put about by the Liberal Democrat researcher reported in The Daily Telegraph today, who said that, on education policy, the Liberal Democrats were "Interchangeable with Labour". Just to help the hon. Gentleman put some clear yellow water between us, Labour local education authorities do not just talk about improved provision—they provide it.

The Bill will take funds from three-year-olds who are being provided with nursery education. It will take some four-year-olds from the full-time nursery education that they are enjoying to part-time nursery education, as the £1,100 voucher does not cover the full cost of a full-time place. Even Government Back Benchers have made the point that the voucher scheme puts money into the pockets of the better-off who can afford private provision.

The Bill will increase bureaucracy and the scope for fraud. Will the Minister confirm that the voucher agency will issue a book of vouchers every half term and that there will be a separate piece of paper for each day? I know from previous debates that the Minister is somewhat arithmetically challenged, but that means that 1 billion pieces of paper will be floating around each year. We have only to imagine the amount of printing, collecting and counting of all that paper to know that the bureaucracy would be enormous. I see the Minister wants to make a statement.

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch

I can give an answer.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson , Plymouth, Devonport

I am willing to give way to the Minister if we can hear the answer.

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch

May I reduce substantially the figures that the hon. Gentleman is talking about? First, there will be three vouchers, one per term—to be strictly correct, there will be three issues, one per term—and parents will have the option to use such issues in more than one setting. In practice, however, a high proportion of parents are likely to use just one provider and that will involve just one voucher at the beginning of term.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson , Plymouth, Devonport

I am grateful to the Minister, but perhaps he will say in his winding-up speech whether he agrees with the longest-serving Tory education committee chairman, Geoffrey Wright, of Solihull council, who said on "Newsnight" on 24 October 1995: In my area of Solihull, nursery education will be damaged by this voucher scheme". Why does not one of the few Conservative education chairmen agree with this scheme?

Will the Minister clear up the matter of inspection? It is essential that we monitor to ensure that we achieve the highest standards. Sub-paragraph 6(1)(a) of schedule 1 provides for inspection of private providers. Paragraph 6(2) refers to section 9 of the Education (Schools) Act 1992, which lists the eight types of school that should be inspected. Seven of them, including city technology colleges, are in the maintained sector. Independent schools, however, are also included in the list.

When the Government implemented their proposals with regulations, a four-yearly inspection system was placed on maintained schools. With independent schools, we heard that inspections would take place about every seven years. In reality, however, the Minister and I know that they take place far less frequently than that. Will independent providers in the non-maintained sector get a lightness of touch in terms of inspection or will inspection be the same across all the providers?

The Bill had the potential to receive widespread support in the House on the principle of nursery education, on setting out to improve existing arrangements and on funding high-quality nursery provision. As with so many Government Bills, it fails to mention standards, the quality of education and the needs of children. Instead, it dwells on adjustments to the funding system and spawns a new leaden bureaucracy. For that reason, I will vote against its Second Reading and Labour Members will seek to amend the Bill to deliver what parents really want: high-quality, well-funded nursery education.

Photo of Mrs Angela Rumbold Mrs Angela Rumbold , Mitcham and Morden 5:47 pm, 22nd January 1996

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment on introducing the Bill. I shall certainly support her in the Division Lobby this evening. At the end of her speech, she asked what the Opposition would be doing. My right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker) eloquently explained that the Opposition would oppose the Bill, not only this evening on its Second Reading, but root and branch in Committee, and when it returns to the Floor of the House.

The Opposition will oppose the Bill, aided by teacher unions, people on local education authorities and by those on local authorities who are of their mind, because, in their opinion, the scheme is not fair. In future, however, as more and more of their Front-Bench Members decide that what is better for their children conflicts with their political thinking, they will no doubt decide that they can, after all, turn their political thinking just a little and accommodate what is obviously a sensible and well-thought-out provision, introduced of course by the Conservative party and Conservative Government. We will watch that with great interest. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley explained, all the way through the period of this Government and previous Governments, we have watched that pattern develop and extend.

I should declare that I have an interest in grant-maintained schools. I am a vice-president of the Grant Maintained Schools Trust. It is what is known as a pro bono appointment. For those who do not understand that, it means that I do the job for the good of it and not for remuneration. I welcome the way that the Bill presents an opportunity for state schools to raise money in private markets to help them to extend and develop. As the Secretary of State said, that is a new but welcome move.

During my time in local government, but much more when I was in central Government, I found it illogical that we could not extend to state schools the opportunities that exist for independent schools. Of course independent schools can raise money on buildings and land, and that enables them to plan school developments well in advance. Three, seven or 10-year plans can be formulated for developing a school, and that can be done because the use of money can be planned. Unfortunately under the Government's system of funding—this is a criticism of the way in which the Treasury operates—that can be done with public funds only on a year-by-year basis, and that makes nonsense of any kind of long-term planning. The Bill is a step in the right direction because it will benefit state schools.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the nursery voucher scheme, and I should like to speak about the timing of the initiatives. My right hon. and hon. Friends have often spoken about the introduction of some form of voucher system to ensure that parents are empowered to make genuine choices for their children. We have often been told that such a system would be fine if the money were there to implement it. It has been said that the children of those who move into the right neighbourhood might even be able to go to a good state school. Unfortunately, those who cannot do that have to save up to send their children to fee-paying schools. The voucher system is the one way in which parents can be empowered to make a genuine choice.

We have heard in the debate about how local authority schools somehow or other give enormous choice to parents. But every hon. Member and everybody outside, especially parents, knows perfectly well that there is no such choice in the state system. Choice depends on where people live, on the local authority and on the way in which it operates an admissions system. Local authorities may choose a variety of criteria for admissions, which may be decided on a geographical basis or may depend on whether there are siblings from the same family in the same school.

Local authorities will always say that they cannot guarantee a place to any family in a particular school, and that applies to nursery, primary, middle or secondary schools. The authorities say that that is because they have to keep some places for people who may move into the area and that such people may take priority on the waiting list. What kind of choice is that for parents?

Photo of Mr Keith Hampson Mr Keith Hampson , Leeds North West

Does my right hon. Friend agree that as well as giving choice to parents we are trying to stimulate schools to design themselves so that they attract pupils? Labour's concept is that schools should somehow be driven towards meeting certain predetermined criteria that are established at the centre and should have a predetermined clientele feeding them.

Photo of Mrs Angela Rumbold Mrs Angela Rumbold , Mitcham and Morden

My hon. Friend is most helpful because he raises the point that I was about to make. Parents look at schools in terms of what they think those schools can offer their children. Parents who can pay for education take enormous care in judging schools. They look at the facilities, academic standards, pastoral care, supplies and so on, but people who have to use the state system are not allowed to do that.

I am a passionate believer in state education. We pay enough for it in taxes and it should be the principal form of education on offer to parents. I have consistently disagreed with Labour because I refuse point blank to be told that the only schools for the majority of children are those designated by the local authorities. If schools are to rise to the challenge of meeting parents' expectations they must fight in the marketplace to attract students, and should not have to depend on local authorities directing parents and children to them.

Photo of Mr Bob Dunn Mr Bob Dunn , Dartford

Does my right hon. Friend recall that in earlier debates Labour was always candid about where it stood on the issue of secondary provision? Now, of course, Labour realises that it is unfashionable and unpopular to say that it would close grammar schools. It has said, and repeated in the debate, that no selective school will be able to admit pupils by interview or examination. Will my right hon. Friend confirm my view that under Labour no current grammar school that can admit pupils in that way will remain a grammar school, but that Labour does not have the guts or the nous to say, "Yes, we want to close grammar schools in the way that we did 30 years ago."

Photo of Mrs Angela Rumbold Mrs Angela Rumbold , Mitcham and Morden

My hon. Friend is right: that is precisely what is being said. But it is being said in code because no Opposition Member wants to tell the truth, which is that they have not changed their education policy for more than 30 years. That is where they stand today.

I am delighted to see the start of a process which, with nursery vouchers, will give parents a genuine choice. At long last parents will be able to say, "We have purchasing power and can choose where to send our children." They will be able to decide which school offers their children the best nursery education. Mothers who come to see me in my constituency will be able to say, "We have looked at all the nursery schools and genuinely believe that our children will do best at this one."

Although my local authority makes great play of its provision for nursery education, unfortunately it does not allow parents to choose a nursery school. Parents are told, "Your child can have a place in that school and if you do not like that—tough." That is not parental choice under any guise. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has presented an opportunity for parents to have a genuine choice. She will certainly get my whole-hearted support and, I trust, the whole-hearted support of every hon. Member who believes that the most important step to raise standards in our schools is not the structure or the mystique about parental choice with which local authorities surround themselves, but the genuine choice that they make for their own children because they want the best for them for the best of reasons. Such choice will be open to everyone, and if parents want examinations or interviews for their children, what is wrong with that? Freedom for parents should mean just that.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 5:58 pm, 22nd January 1996

I am delighted to follow the right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold), whose commitment to state education is beyond peradventure. I share her belief in the importance of empowering parents, but I disagree with her belief that it is the most important and almost the sole key to raising achievement. While I do not accept that, I agree that it is an important element.

I also disagree with the right hon. Lady, and with the right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker), that the best way of empowering parents is through the voucher system proposed by the Government. Sadly, I also must agree with the right hon. Lady's prediction that there will be wide-scale opposition to the proposals. The right hon. Lady is right—there already is wide-scale opposition to the proposals.

The right hon. Lady was foolish to be proud that the proposals have been put together by the Conservative party, because the evidence suggests that the Bill will fare little better than other legislation proposed recently by the Government. The Bill has been hastily cobbled together, and its flaws will begin to show clearly in Committee. A similar situation occurred with the Education (Student Loans) Bill where, after a few days in Committee, the Minister had to point out some major problems with the Bill and announce a delay in the implementation of the proposals by one year.

This Bill is like the Education (Student Loans) Bill. It is a set of gimmicks put forward by the Government which fails to address the real issues and concerns in the education service. The first of those gimmicks relates to grant-maintained schools. There cannot be many people who do not accept that the grant-maintained schools policy has been a failure, despite all the inducements offered by the Government.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to explain how a policy that has led to only one twenty-fourth of all schools choosing to opt out since it was introduced in 1988 can be described as a success, the House would be interested. The Government's flagship policy has sunk—it has failed. It is slightly bizarre that the Prime Minister, of all people, has spent so much time addressing the issue of grant-maintained status. I do not understand why he would wish to draw attention to the least succesful of all the Government's education policies. It was the Prime Minister, to, be fair, and not the Secretary of State, who made clear that he intended to make yet another attempt to try to induce more schools to choose the opt-out route.

I suppose that we should be grateful that at least one of the two suggestions the Prime Minister put forward—the proposal for a fast track to grant-maintained status for church schools—has been dropped. The only success of that proposal was that it successfully united both Catholics and Protestants against it.

The Bill contains proposals that relate to the ability of grant-maintained schools to borrow money using the school's assets as collateral, and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) eloquently outlined some of the flaws in that proposal. It is interesting to note that the Bill contains measures about which many head teachers of grant-maintained schools have expressed concern. They realise that borrowing money is very easy—it is paying it back that is difficult. They are very concerned—as are, I suspect, many Opposition Members—at the possibility of a mortgage company repossessing a state school for the first time in this country.

There is no doubt that the Bill confirms the advantage of grant-maintained schools over LEA schools. Perhaps equally of concern is the fact that the Bill alters the current position, whereby in certain circumstances where the assets of a grant-maintained school are considered to be surplus to requirements, some of the money gained from the sale of those assets can be returned to the LEA, or the premises themselves can be made available to the LEA. That is likely to change if those surplus assets are now to be tied up and used as collateral against any loan that has been made.

Photo of Mr Keith Hampson Mr Keith Hampson , Leeds North West

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point—if he is right. But as I understand it, schools cannot borrow or grant security on anything like the scale that the hon. Gentleman is talking about without the Secretary of State's approval—including a Labour or even a Liberal Democrat Secretary of State. There are safeguards in the Bill. If local authorities can borrow against assets such as parking metres and get away with it, surely a lot of money can be raised against a school's assets.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman fails to acknowledge my point. The premises or assets against which money can be borrowed are those deemed to be non-core assets. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are limits to the amount that can be borrowed, and the figure of 5 per cent. is included in the proposals. Nevertheless, schools will no longer be able to pass back those surplus assets to the LEA, or sell them to enable some of the benefits from such a sale to be passed back to the LEA as currently takes place.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I am sure that the House would like the Minister to state whether I am incorrect.

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I do not want to spend too much time at the Dispatch Box intervening. I ask the hon. Gentleman to think in wider terms than merely the assets pledged. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the private finance initiative, and there are a whole range of other options available. We are saying that grant-maintained schools have demonstrated that they can run themselves, and this is simply another area in which they can do so.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I suspect that the House would not wish to be detained by a detailed debate between the Minister and me on this issue, and it is a matter that we can pick up in Committee. I hope that the Minister accepts that the package of proposals on grant-maintained schools in the Bill tilts the playing field in favour of such schools. Certainly no Opposition Member is comfortable with any set of proposals that advantage grant-maintained schools to the detriment of local education authority schools.

Photo of Mr James Spicer Mr James Spicer , West Dorset

I am in a rather difficult position at the moment, because I have had a passionate plea from the chairman of the policy and resources committee of Dorset county council, Councillor Jones, to do all that I can to get funding under the PFI for a school that he wants built. Letters have been pouring in to me from Liberal Democrats in West Dorset, asking me to put my weight behind the proposal. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not going back on that. Does he think that I am doing the right thing in supporting that proposal?

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to recommend that he accepts that request to support the PFI scheme. I hope that the Government will make better use of the PFI than they have done in a number of projects. I wish, for example, that they had taken my advice and used the PFI with regard to a Ministry of Defence building in my constituency. If they had done so, they could have saved £40 million of taxpayers' money.

The hon. Gentleman reminds the House of the considerable difficulty that many LEAs are having with capital expenditure, and he may be interested to know that 22.4 per cent. of the bids for capital assistance made to the Government were accepted this year. Many schools are in very serious difficulty because of their buildings, not least in the hon. Gentleman's LEA area.

I wish to deal with the more substantial—but, I believe, equally deficient—part of the Bill in respect of nursery education.

The right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker) is not in his place, but I supported at least one part of his contribution to the debate, which was his impassioned and well-placed plea for increased provision for those children who have been identified as having special educational needs. I hope that the Minister will deal with that in his reply.

A number of right hon. and hon. Members have already mentioned the importance of high-quality early-years education—I think that all hon. Members agree that it is crucial and accept that it brings social, educational and economic benefits not only for the individual but for the nation. We must ask ourselves whether the proposals in the Bill provide the most effective means for expanding provision of high-quality early-years education, and the subsidiary question: could the proposals in any way harm the expansion of such provision?

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the use of the words "early-years education" is correct in so far as it covers a range of options? Does he also agree that, desirable though it is to have an expansion in the number of good playgroups, it would be wrong if the expansion meant either the diminution or elimination of nursery education, as statutorily defined? We need the expansion of both.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I entirely accept the points made by the hon. Gentleman, which probably have unanimous support across the Chamber.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

Not from Conservative Members.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I think that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber want diverse provision to be expanded, taking into account statutory provision, as well as that from the voluntary and the private sectors. The hon. Gentleman is right that there are a number of problems with the language that is being used, which is why I prefer to use phrase "high-quality"—quality is crucial—"early-years education".

The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) may be as confused as I am in trying to understand why, for example, the Office for Standards in Education is redefining the title of inspectors who deal in the sphere previously termed "early-years education"—the designated title is redefined as "pre-school education". I am concerned about that.

I question whether that type of provision will help to expand the nature of provision. I do not believe that it will. That view is supported by many organisations with expertise in early-years education. The majority of people who work in that sphere are extremely concerned about the proposals—they oppose them, believing that they may even harm some of the existing provision.

It is interesting to note that, in an intervention, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), chided Opposition Members and said that Conservative Members "listen to consultation". On this issue, there is no evidence that that is what they do. They do not even listen to a number of their own Members. For example, the hon. Member for Crosby (Sir M. Thornton), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education, said: would it not perhaps be better to think of widening existing provision than to bring in a new scheme against the background of limited money?"—[Official Report, 21 November 1995; Vol. 267, c. 487.] The Conservative Education Association said in a statement earlier this month: we did not feel that a voucher scheme was the most efficient way of expanding pre-school provision". It then expressed a number of concerns about the scheme. There is therefore considerable concern even from Members of the Conservative party.

The majority of local education authorities—including some Conservative-controlled authorities—have made their position clear by refusing to participate in the trials of the proposals contained in the Bill. Only four have been willing to get involved, yet the Government are going to rush ahead and introduce the Bill before the trials are even under way, let alone give us time to evaluate the outcome of the trials. So much for consultation.

The scheme in the proposed legislation brings with it a cumbersome, unnecessary and expensive bureaucracy. It will do nothing to expand provision for three-year-olds and could harm the provision that already exists. The scheme could, without the expense of further bureaucracy, be amenable to fraud and abuse. It prevents, through the market-driven approach that underpins it, any notion of strategic planning, and it could prevent effective co-operation and partnership between the providers.

The scheme reduces the possibility of developing links between education provision and care provision, as envisaged in the Children Act 1989, and could indeed damage some of the co-operation that already exists. Further, given that the likely voucher redemption value is the figure that has been quoted, the proposals will not ensure that new provision is made where none exists. The funds will simply not be available to meet existing running costs and ensure that money is made available for the training of new teachers and the building and equipping of new classrooms and schools.

Too much stress has been placed on the issue of choice. As the right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden said in her contribution, in the majority of circumstances parents have no choice about where to send their children to school and in many cases the nursery voucher scheme will mean that they will get a voucher but will have nowhere to redeem it. The scheme is, after all, a big con trick.

The House should beware any legislation with so many blanks left in it—blanks that are expected to be filled in at the whim of the Secretary of State. Many of us highly value the briefs that the staff in the Library prepare for us. It is instructive to look, for example, at page 22 of the brief on the Bill, which says: Clause 1 empowers the Secretary of State to make arrangements for the making of grants in respect of nursery education. It continues: As the Bill stands it does not lay down the form in which the arrangements will be made. It does not state that the arrangements will be made by Order. It says: Clause 2 authorises the arrangements under clause 1 to include the provision for grant-making and related functions to be delegated, wholly or partly, without prejudice to the Secretary of State's powers. It goes on: The clause does not specify to whom delegated powers may be given. It says: Clause 3 provides for the Secretary of State to impose requirements on an authority or other persons in receipt of grants in respect of nursery education. The requirements are not specified and may be imposed on, or at any time after, the making of any grant, and may at any time be varied, waived or removed". There are far too many blanks in this legislation. We should not accept legislation that gives the Secretary of State so much unfettered power. The Bill fails even to get near to a set of proposals that would ensure the provision of high-quality early-years education for all three and four-year-olds whose parents want it for their children. As I said earlier, such provision would be expensive, but it is a price worth paying. It is an investment in the future of this country and my party is committed to it.

We are committed to the funding of early-years education. We have made it clear that, if necessary, we would increase the income tax rate to pay for it. This Bill goes nowhere near any of that and it simply does not deserve a Second Reading.

Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North 6:18 pm, 22nd January 1996

My right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker) referred to some of the Education Acts that were passed in this and the previous three Parliaments. I was an Education Minister from 1979 to 1983 and Labour party policy was to oppose everything that we put through and then, five years later, to say that it agreed with us. That was true of parental choice of school, which was also opposed and voted against by the Liberals. They must remember that they voted against parental choice.

Similarly, the Liberals and Labour voted against the introduction of tests. It appears that they, too, have now been accepted. Labour policy is to follow five years behind Conservative policy. In another five years, we shall find Labour advocating vouchers—I will not say for three-year-olds, but for four-year-olds as we do now.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson , Eastbourne

Before my hon. Friend leaves the Liberal Democrats, he may not yet have seen a copy of the document, "Towards 1996", which bears the subtitles, "Ideas for Research and Campaigning" and "Liberal Democrat Whips Office", and states: Of all parties we are probably going to go into the election most intent on dismantling Tory education policy.

Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North

It appears that there is a gap between what happens in Parliament and what hon. Members' researchers write before we meet. We shall have to leave it to the two Opposition parties to discuss which of them is the more reactionary.

There is, however, a philosophical difference between the Conservative party and the Liberal and Labour parties. We Conservatives trust people and believe that the more powers we give them, the better and more adult society will be. Labour and the Liberals trust elected local authority bodies and believe that councillors have some wisdom that ordinary people in the street do not have. On that theory, Members of Parliament have an even greater perception of what will happen in the future. That is a big difference, which comes through especially on the question of vouchers.

If people can decide what car they want to drive, where they want to live and the job that they want to do, surely to goodness they should be able to choose where they want their children to go to school. With a voucher, they could go from nursery to nursery until they find the one that suits their child. They could exercise the choice exercised by a certain Labour Member. I welcome that Member's exercise of choice, so long as everybody else can have the same freedom. If they cannot, there is something wrong with the philosophy of the Labour party.

I have always backed vouchers. I wrote a pamphlet on the education voucher 25 years ago and thought that I had invented it. I thought that it was something that came to me in a dream. I wrote it up immediately and then found that the Institute of Economic Affairs had produced a pamphlet on the subject. Later, I met Milton Friedman, who had also done some work on vouchers. I then found that Cardinal Bourne, an Australian, had written about them in 1926.

I can disclose something new to the House tonight. I can go still further back: in 1790, Tom Paine advocated giving all parents in America £4 to have their children educated. It may be that the matter goes back still further, to the Old Testament, but I have gone as far as I can for now and I call in the shadow of Tom Paine and "The Rights of Man" on our side of the argument about choice, grant-maintained schools and vouchers.

I want to say something about giving borrowing powers to grant-maintained schools. The great national debt was not created by parents and schools, but by Governments. How can Governments refuse to give others the right to borrow, knowing how much has been borrowed by Governments of all parties over the years? People on the spot will be more careful with their own money than Governments will ever be, because they themselves are responsible: they may have to get the assent of the Secretary of State, but they are responsible. I would sooner trust my money with the local friendly society than with a Government of any colour.

The grant-maintained schools have been very successful. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) said that they made up only 4 per cent. of schools, but most of those are secondary schools. More than 1,000 schools have taken the initiative and 1,000 sets of people have voted in favour. They, rather than Opposition Members, are the libertarians of our time.

Photo of Mr Bob Dunn Mr Bob Dunn , Dartford

In contrast with local authorities.

Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North

Yes, in contrast with local authorities, including some Conservative-controlled ones. I shall not mention Brent in detail, but all except one of our secondary schools are grant maintained—I took no part in that process, because there could have been a re-vote if it had gone wrong—and they have all improved.

I believe that I can win in the next general election in Brent, North on the issue of grant-maintained schools. The Labour party does not realise how important that issue is in some places. Parents who have voted for grant-maintained status are not going to vote to let the Labour party undo it. That policy is a liability for Labour Members. They might catch up on that over the next three months instead of waiting five years to bring their policy into accord with ours. There is no doubt that if the Labour party won the general election and we had foundation schools, or whatever they are to be called, it would be the end of the grant-maintained school.

Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North

My hon. Friend is right. He did not go to a grammar school, but to a technical school. He is a technical man and all my technical knowledge comes from him. I rarely pay such tributes, and I had better get on now as I do not want to get the House too excited on these matters.

Photo of Mr Bob Dunn Mr Bob Dunn , Dartford

There has been a great deal of debate about the decision of the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) to send her child out of the local authority area in which she lives. Why did she make that decision? It was because she could not find a school in her locality that was up to the standard that she wanted for her child. Is that not the end of the telescope through which we should be looking? She could not find a suitable school locally, so she went 15 miles down the road.

Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North

I commend my hon. Friend for his imagery. As an ex-Navy man, I must say that the analogy of the telescope is one of the best that I have heard in the House and we shall remember it for many days. The episode will be known from now on as the Peckham telescope and my hon. Friend will be linked with it for ever more.

If the Labour party won the next general election and decided to abolish grant-maintained schools, all those schools would lose at least 10 per cent. of their money. Staff would have to be sacked. I shall make sure that my constituents know that. Labour would then put two socialist aldermen of great vintage on to all the governing bodies to bring them back into order.

Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North

I have to be careful because my father was a socialist alderman for 40 years. It took me a long time to reach the free society. If they were put on governing bodies, they would be clever and instrumental in what they said and did. Grant-maintained schools would lose their freedom to recruit pupils, and that would be the end of the grant-maintained system. I shall put forward that scenario at the next general election, whenever it comes.

The philosophical difference between the Labour and Liberal parties and the Conservative party is the belief that people can run their own destinies. Some people cannot, and one must do all that one can to look after them, but the more mature we can make people, the better our society will be. Both grant-maintained schools and the voucher system, which enables parents to choose where their children go to school, are opposed by local authorities, but they are great steps forward towards a free society in Britain.

Photo of Alan Keen Alan Keen , Feltham and Heston 6:30 pm, 22nd January 1996

The right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) asked why the Opposition oppose the Bill. I came here especially this evening to say why I oppose it. My borough of Hounslow has a top-class nursery system and we are terrified that the voucher system will damage it.

My speech will concentrate on the nursery voucher scheme rather than the other proposal in the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) outlined the advantages of nursery education, so I shall not repeat them. I represent the western half of the borough of Hounslow and live in the other half. My local authority provides a nursery school place for every three-year-old and four-year-old child whose parents wish to take it up. The system is co-ordinated between schools and the local education authority. Teachers and nursery nurses are fully trained, and their training and quality is monitored regularly, contrary to what will happen under the nursery voucher system.

Conservative Members may as well stamp "Vote Conservative" on nursery vouchers, as they seem to think that pieces of paper worth £1,100 will make people vote Conservative. That is the basis of the scheme. People in areas with a solid, high-class nursery education system are worried and do not want their local authority's nursery education provision to be damaged. I want this Government and the forthcoming Labour Government to ensure that every child throughout the nation has a chance of high-class nursery education.

I was not happy with the Secretary of State's answer to my questions at an Education Select Committee meeting shortly before Christmas, when she accused me of putting the Hounslow administrative system before children's education. That is ridiculous. She made that accusation despite the fact that I said, following earlier cricket metaphors, that I did not intend to bowl out the Secretary of State but wanted to express genuine concern about the proposed nursery voucher system. I did not take kindly to the accusation that I was simply worried about Hounslow's administrative system. I am, however, concerned that the administration of education in Hounslow will be damaged because the local education authority provides the co-ordination necessary for a high-class nursery education system.

The Government say that they intend to carry out an experiment in four local authorities. I hope that it is a genuine experiment, as it appears that the decision has already been taken to proceed with the full system in 1997–98. We heard tonight that inspection costs are already included in the first year's budget.

Hounslow's nursery education service has been funded and built up over the years partly by paring a certain amount of money from secondary and primary education budgets. Secondary and primary school head teachers in the borough are aware that Government cuts in revenue support grant have forced down real expenditure and the money that they need cannot be provided, but they are happy about maintaining the balance between nursery education and primary and secondary education costs because they realise that their job of educating children is made easier when children have been through nursery education and reception classes. The advantages of nursery education last not just for one or two years, but throughout young people's education and even result in a reduction in crime rates. Children in Hounslow do not just learn academically, but understand social exchanges. The fact that they learn give and take at the age of three is reflected in better behaviour throughout the secondary school system. That is why secondary school head teachers in Hounslow are happy to see that balance of expenditure maintained.

Photo of Mr Keith Hampson Mr Keith Hampson , Leeds North West

If the local authority system is so brilliant, all parents will use it and the local authority will receive the £1,100. If, as the hon. Gentleman says, it costs more, his authority will still be able to invest that extra amount and maintain the system. But we do not know whether the local authority system is as brilliant as he claims. People used to think that the education systems in Islington and Lambeth were brilliant; we now discover that the Labour leader and his acolytes have seen something better outside. That will have an impact. If choice is offered in the hon. Gentleman's area, parents may find better nursery schools than those provided by his local council.

Photo of Alan Keen Alan Keen , Feltham and Heston

If the hon. Gentleman doubts the quality of nursery education in Hounslow, I should be delighted to show him around.

Photo of Alan Keen Alan Keen , Feltham and Heston

I should be delighted if the hon. Gentleman would come to Hounslow. I wish that he could have come before voting in the Lobby today as he might have changed his mind. He says that parents might not spend all their vouchers in Hounslow. It is a pity that nursery teachers, and also parents whose children already benefit from nursery education in Hounslow, will not have a chance to talk to every parent who will suddenly receive a voucher and who may be attracted by child-minding organisations operating from halls, libraries or committee rooms. If vouchers are sent out by the hundreds in Hounslow, a certain number of parents are bound to be tempted by organisations that offer no more than child minding, and they may not realise their mistake until it is much too late. Moreover, if people choose to spend their vouchers on organisations that do not offer a high standard of education, qualified nursery education teachers will be put out of work and replaced by people who, under these proposals, do not have to be trained.

I am sure that Conservative Members may already be going round the country signing agreements for cricket pavilions, sports halls and bus shelters in areas where there is no nursery education. People will be able to make a profit out of the system, but the premises will be unsatisfactory. No requirements are made about the quality of premises and, even if there were, the inspection system will not be in place soon enough.

Photo of Mr James Pawsey Mr James Pawsey , Rugby and Kenilworth

There is a demand for quality of premises. The demand will come from parents—the point made by my hon. Friends. We want to emphasise the fact that we should trust parents, who want the best for their own children, in exactly the same way as the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) and the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) do.

Photo of Alan Keen Alan Keen , Feltham and Heston

I am concerned about those parents who do not have an opportunity to choose in Hounslow before they place their vouchers somewhere else. I am worried about parents who spend the vouchers for their children to receive child care in cricket pavilions and barns in areas of the country where there is nothing else to choose from. I am worried that their money may be spent on such premises.

I should love hon. Members to come and compare Hounslow's nursery education with that in other parts of the country. I should be delighted to come and look at nursery education in areas where there are virtually no facilities at present. There is an enormous difference in quality between Hounslow's nursery education and the nursery education in those other areas. The cost of monitoring private schemes around the country will be enormous. More importantly, time will be wasted during the vital years of children's education—when they are aged three, four and five—as they will attend schools that will not be of the same standard as their parents could have chosen.

I wish to explain the benefits of nursery education, but I shall keep my remarks to a minimum. It is vital that nursery schools are monitored and co-ordinated by a local education authority to ensure that we have the highest standards of education and training.

Photo of Mr David Congdon Mr David Congdon , Croydon North East

I am intrigued to know why the hon. Gentleman has such faith in local education authorities ensure high standards when we know that the standards of education in many inner-city areas such as Islington and Camden, to name but two, are so abysmal that Opposition Members send their children elsewhere. Why does the hon. Gentleman have such faith in the ability of local education authorities to maintain standards when they have clearly failed abysmally in so many parts of the country?

Photo of Alan Keen Alan Keen , Feltham and Heston

When I began my speech I said that I would concentrate on my borough and the fears that our first-class nursery education will be damaged. I invite any Conservative Member to come to Hounslow, where I will show him or her exactly what high-class nursery education is.

If anyone doubts the value of local education authority monitoring, I shall convince him or her by reading from a letter. It was not written in response to the nursery scheme, but was sent from one of the voluntary-aided schools in the borough. The school was concerned about the way in which the Government were almost forcing it to come out from under local education authority control. The letter states: Finally, once again, the Government seek to finance the proposals by reducing the moneys made available to our local education authority and thus adversely affecting the funding of our governing body and the support mechanisms which are so important to our work for the children in our care. Such support will not occur under the nursery voucher scheme.

I returned from Dublin at the new year with some great good-news-and-bad-news stories which are, unfortunately, unsuitable for the House of Commons, but I have a good-news-and-bad-news ending for my speech. The voucher scheme is bad news for Conservative Members who represent areas with a high-class nursery education system because that education system will be damaged and because if those Conservative Members vote with the Government today they, too, will suffer badly as a result. There is good news, however, for the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), who has disappeared, and for others in Ealing, North because, despite many years of Conservative control, there is almost no nursery education to damage in that area. There is excellent news for hon. Members who represent the borough to the south of Hounslow—Richmond and Twickenham—where, despite 20-odd years of Liberal and Liberal Democrat control, there is almost no nursery education to damage. There is good news for those hon. Members, but bad news for hon. Members who represent areas that have been used to a high-class nursery education. I hope that high-class nursery education will not be replaced by some sort of child minding in barns, cricket pavilions and even bus shelters.

Photo of Mr Graham Riddick Mr Graham Riddick , Colne Valley 6:45 pm, 22nd January 1996

rose—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am grateful to my hon. Friends.

Curiosity forced me to ask my hon. Friend the Minister what the headline was in tonight's Evening Standard. I discover that it is "Blair's Wall of Silence"—I cannot imagine what it is referring to. An article inside the newspaper quotes Southwark council as saying that what has happened is obviously not an advertisement for our schools". Indeed, it is not.

It was interesting and instructive to listen to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) on the "World at One" this afternoon. The first question that he was asked was, of course, about the decision of the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) to send her son to a particular school. The right hon. Gentleman refused to enter into a debate on the subject and refused to answer the question. He said that he had agreed to appear on the programme only if he was not asked a question about that subject. It appears that no one wants to talk about the hon. Member for Peckham, but I intend to come to her defence—well, sort of.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on having done what she thinks is best for her son. I congratulate the Conservative Government on having given her the opportunity to exercise her choice. I find it appalling that Labour Members seek to deny that choice to other parents while taking advantage of it for themselves—that is the hypocrisy. Labour's stakeholding proposal is becoming clear: the idea is to get a stake in society now and exercise parental choice now while the Tories are in power. Our message to the British people is that they will have to keep the Tories in power if they wish to retain the opportunity to exercise choice in education, and in other sectors.

The Education Reform Act 1988 was a turning point. As we all know, that Act—along with other measures—has attempted to drive up standards and give more power and choice to parents. If the Leader of the Opposition had really believed in stakeholding, he would have supported taking away power from local authorities and giving it to individual schools; he would have supported giving parents the opportunity to take their schools completely out of the hands of local authorities. But he and his party have vehemently opposed those moves; they have opposed all our moves to give parents more choice.

The Conservative Government have attempted to drive up standards and give parents more information by introducing the national curriculum and formal testing and publishing exam results. The so-called stakeholder from Sedgefield opposed the lot. But while the self-confessed Sedgefield sloganiser comes out with his soundbites, the Conservative Government steadily provide more choice to parents. This Bill is part of that process. Giving parents of four-year-olds vouchers to redeem against their children's education—which the parents choose—is extending the concept of parental power in a real and radical way.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the language that he has just used. As far as he is concerned, one of the advantages of the system is that some parents will be able to top up a voucher for approximately half of nursery education provision in order to provide full or three quarter nursery education. However, other parents will not be able to do that. Does he regard that as one of the advantages of parental choice that is allied to income?

Photo of Mr Graham Riddick Mr Graham Riddick , Colne Valley

Of course parents will have that choice, but local authorities will be able to do that also. Local authorities currently spend beyond their standard spending assessments on full-time nursery places for four-year-olds. They will continue to be able to do that. Money has been taken from them by way of reduced grants in order to pay for two and a half days of nursery education, but local authorities will retain money to spend on nursery education if they so choose. That is the reality of the situation. Many people in the education world and on the Opposition Benches oppose nursery vouchers because they extend parental choice.

Vouchers will also lead to more diversity in pre-school provision. There will be more competition between providers. Sadly, many in the education world abhor competition, but it will drive up standards, not reduce them. Nursery vouchers will also result in more establishments from which to choose. Once parents have had a taste of exercising real choice under the voucher system, there will be no going back. They will not relinquish that choice and, who knows, they may demand that vouchers be introduced for primary and secondary schools also.

I do not wish to belittle in any way the genuine concerns expressed by many of those involved in providing nursery education. It is thoroughly understandable that they should be concerned about a new development which, to an extent, takes them into uncharted waters. Therefore, it is very important that we provide information about the new scheme to school heads and to teachers as soon as possible. It is even more crucial that we do not allow the scheme's administrators and the so-called "professional experts" within the Department for Education and Employment to overload the new scheme with unnecessary bureaucracy and regulation. That is exactly what happened with the national curriculum.

Genuine concerns are one thing; scare stories and downright lies are another. I am sure that Conservative Members will have experienced the latter from Labour politicians, from some in the education world and from Labour councils in our constituencies. My own council, Labour-controlled Kirklees, has used pupils to distribute disingenuous propaganda against the voucher scheme to parents. That is an absolute disgrace.

We have heard that local authorities will be deprived of millions of pounds in grants. However, we do not hear how all that money and more will be circulated to parents within the council areas. Opposition Members have said that nursery provision for three-year-olds will no longer be available. That is totally untrue because councils will be able to spend the same amount of money on nursery education for three-year-olds as they do currently. That money will not be deducted from local council grants or from SSAs. The same applies to full-time places for four-year-olds, as I made clear to the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing).

This relatively short Bill contains no mention of vouchers, despite the fact that the Government clearly intend to provide vouchers to parents. I think that we should be more explicit about our intentions. If, by some appalling mishap, a Labour Government were elected, they would not have to pass any primary legislation in order to abolish the voucher system. That is a mistake, because I believe that Labour would seek to reduce parental power and choice, preferably by the back door. We should ensure that, if ever a Labour Government tried to do that, there will be an almighty row not only in our constituencies but in the House.

I shall refer briefly to the second part of the Bill. I am happy to support any measure that is intended to help grant-maintained schools and to encourage other schools to go grant maintained. Those schools that have assumed GM status have been very successful. Their exam results and discipline have improved and more subjects are being taught. GM schools have also proved popular with parents.

But, in truth, GM status does not create a type of school: it merely gives schools greater independence and frees them from the control and diktat of local education authorities. GM schools are successful because they have taken advantage of their new-found freedom. They know that they will stand or fall according to their own efforts. Each GM school will develop its own ethos and individual approach according to the requirements of parents and local needs.

I believe that the time has come to extend that freedom from local education authority control to all secondary schools without their having to take the divisive step of holding a ballot. All secondary schools would then become autonomous establishments within the state sector. They would develop different approaches to delivering education and each school would develop its own ethos. Competition between schools would be intense and competition in education would have the same effect as competition everywhere else: it would keep schools on their toes and drive up standards.

I have gone a little beyond the scope of the Bill in my remarks, but I hope that my points about GM status will appear in the next education Bill. In the meantime, I am delighted to support the Second Reading of this Bill, which will result in greater diversity in nursery education provision for pre-fives and give parents more choice and more say.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge , Barking 6:56 pm, 22nd January 1996

The Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill represents a tragic wasted opportunity, not only for our children's future but for the future well-being of our nation. However, the voucher scheme will give parents a chance to judge clearly the difference in purpose and in principle between the two main political parties.

The Government's proposals are driven by dogma and not by the needs of children and their families. That dogma says that private is good and public is bad, and it has led the Government to use the very limited resources available to subsidise places for the few in the private sector rather than focusing on providing new, quality places for many in other sectors. Even the private sector does not applaud that dogma because it fears that it will lead to cowboy operators catering for the very young in our community.

The Government's proposals are based on dogma which is founded in their obsessive and irrational hatred of local government. That has led the Government to waste millions of pounds creating a new bureaucracy to administer the scheme rather than working in partnership with local authorities, which could be responsible for its administration. The Government's proposals are based on dogma to the extent that they prefer to skimp on investing in the talents and potential of our young people and instead spend millions on the waste of talent and potential of young people on the dole.

The Government's plans are not just dogmatic; they are riddled with waste and inefficiencies. So much so that the Government admitted recently that they will fail in their lesser promise to provide places for all four-year-olds. Even they have now said that they cannot guarantee a place for all four-year-olds in the pilot authorities. I would welcome the intervention of the Minister, if he dares, to say that when Westminster starts the scheme in a few months, there will be a place for every four-year-old as a result of the voucher scheme in that borough.

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch

I am happy to intervene on the hon. Lady, although she asked a rather strange question. It is self-evidently the case in all the phase 1 areas—indeed, throughout the country—that there is scope for expansion of nursery education. The voucher will make it much more likely—

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers , Wallsend

Come on, answer the question.

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch

If the hon. Gentleman will contain himself, I am answering the hon. Lady's question. Self-evidently, the voucher is the quickest way to cause different types of providers to create more nursery education. We are still waiting to hear how Labour would provide nursery education. Perhaps the hon. Lady will tell us how she would provide it.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge , Barking

I agree that expansion is needed—we have been telling the Government so for a very long time. The Government could fulfil their promise to the people of Westminster that there will be a place for every four-year-old in Westminster if they spent the money, not on an ill-thought-out, ill-conceived voucher scheme, but on creating more places, training more teachers and providing appropriate facilities for four-year-olds.

When the Minister—as Conservative Members do—speaks about choice in nursery education, it should be remembered that choice does not exist for the people of Westminster, because there are not enough places. It is impossible to choose if there is nowhere to go. No place—no choice.

Equally, in an earlier intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), the Minister admitted that some of the money that has been set aside in what is now called the first phase rather than the pilot for the voucher scheme, will be used to train inspectors. Let us get that position clear; let us be aware of how ill thought out the voucher scheme is.

In order seriously to inspect all the settings that will provide nursery places for four-year-olds, on their own admission the Government require 4,000 inspectors. At present, three inspectors in the Department for Education and Employment are appropriately qualified for such inspections. In addition, 200 inspectors in the country at large have been registered as qualified to undertake the required inspection. No way—even with all the money that has been set aside—will the Government be able to find and train the 4,000 people that they, on their own admission, require if they are properly to inspect the nursery settings in which the voucher scheme will operate.

There will not be a proper inspection; it will be a "light-touch inspection". It will not be the Office for Standards in Education inspection to which we are used, in which at least three or four days are spent in each nursery school. It will be a one-day inspection, which will be superficial and "light-touch" and will not ensure the quality and standards to which our young people are entitled.

We all know that investing in the early years of a child's life makes sense. On that, I believe that there is broad consensus in the House. Not only does it make sense; it is essential if we are serious about raising standards, and if we are serious about providing equality of opportunity for all our children.

Sixty per cent. of a child's intellectual growth occurs before the age of six—a staggering figure. The early years are obviously crucial to the child's potential and later performance. Yet what do the Government suggest in the Bill? They suggest two and a half hours a day, if the child is lucky, in a place that will be registered, not by professional educationists from the Department for Education and Employment, but by a management consultancy. That is the organisation that does the job in the pilot authorities, a management consultancy—Capita, for Conservative Members' information—which acts as the Government's agency and which, on its own admission, knows very little about education.

Children would spend two and a half hours a day in a place where, we learn from other Government proposals, space standards will be cut. Space standards are crucial to facilitate the child's development at that early age. Two and a half hours a day, when rigorous Ofsted inspection of nursery education is to be replaced by that light-touch inspection; two and a half hours a day, when the outcomes expected from the children make every self-respecting nursery teacher laugh because they are so limited.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

The phrase "light touch" will be greeted with amusement by teachers in schools of pupils older than nursery age.

Has my hon. Friend also heard that it is possible that Ofsted, in the form of the chief inspector, who plays an important role in that matter, may sub-contract that inspecting role to organisations that at the moment are nothing to do with Ofsted. I do not know whether the Minister can confirm that when he replies; perhaps my hon. Friend can. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is not merely a light touch, but a palsied touch?

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge , Barking

I agree entirely with the sentiments underlying that question. My guess is that, were the present Government to continue to be in office when that expansion—so-called introduction—of nursery vouchers takes place, the settings would not be inspected, in the way that many primary schools are currently not inspected because there is a huge shortage of appropriately qualified and appropriately registered inspectors to carry out the task.

I am scandalised that the proposals before the House are all that the Government are prepared to do for the young children of today, who will become the adults of tomorrow. I cannot believe that anyone would consider that to be the best way to invest in our future and our children's future.

If children develop as much and as quickly in their early years as research suggests, we cannot treat those years in the dilettante fashion that these proposals do. We need to fulfil the promise given by both political parties, far too many decades ago, that every child whose parents so wish should be entitled to free, high quality nursery education. That should be the case, not only for four-year-olds, but for three-year-olds. I welcome the statement by my hon. Friend the Member for Brightside that Labour will set targets so that we achieve that aim.

We must go further. Two and a half hours a day for four-year-olds represents only about 1 per cent. of a child's early life. If so much development occurs so early, we cannot continue to ignore what happens to young children during the rest of their day. We cannot presume, as the Government do, that the early years of a child's life are solely a private concern of parents, with the community intervening only at points of crisis when, for example, children are at risk of abuse.

Things have changed since people first had the idea of nursery education. Any Government who are committed to the future, as Labour is, would adapt their programmes to meet the circumstances of the future. I am afraid that the proposals in the Bill—the proposals of a tired Tory Government, bereft of ideas and devoid of a clear vision—cannot do it.

In the world of today and the world of tomorrow, life for the young child has changed. Mothers work because they want and need to do so. They work when their children are younger. Nearly half the mothers with children under the age of five work, and that figure is set to rise to seven out of 10 mothers by the turn of the century. Matters are made more difficult because more and more parents can no longer rely on their families to help with child care. About one in two families seek formal child care arrangements when the parents work. They must find childminders or go for more flexible nursery provision.

With growing insecurity on the streets, fewer and fewer children can go to school alone. When we were young, probably about 80 per cent. of us in the Chamber went to school alone. Today, only 9 per cent. of children are allowed to do so. In that context, two and a half hours' nursery education a day is no longer appropriate for many families. For children who would most benefit from a good quality nursery experience, it is probably the least appropriate. All too often, a mother on shift work cannot choose her hours of employment to fit in with traditional nursery hours. If Conservative Members really have the interests of children and their parents at heart, they would think afresh, as we are doing. We must build on understanding of the importance of quality nursery education and integrate it in a real and practical way with child care and play, so that young children get the best start in life.

A child's learning does not miraculously start at three or four years of age but at birth. A family's needs do not suddenly change when a child is three or four but when a child is born. A responsible Government would respond to real needs by building services that are education-focused and child-centred, but which recognise the changed world in which we live. That is the vision and strategy for the future. An ill-conceived, ill-thought-out voucher scheme is not even a strategy for today, let alone one for the future. Thank goodness that the scheme is never likely to be implemented before the country rids itself of this failed Government, and that we shall have £185 million to spend more sensibly on expanding nursery education.

In the last couple of weeks, we have heard much about the stakeholder society—to which Conservative Members in particular have made several references. In that policy area, the importance of the concept is clear and the difference between Labour and the Government is distinct. We all have a stake in our children in their early years—3.8 million children are under five, and what happens to them matters to us all. We all have a stake in their future. Children obviously need the best possible start if they are to develop their potential. Their stake in nursery education is their future. Their parents obviously want the best for their children and clearly have responsibilities to them. Ensuring that we build the skills needed for the future gives employers a stake in pre-school education. People who work in pre-school education have a stake, with rights to proper training and conditions, and an obligation to provide a quality experience for the children. Local authorities also have a stake, with a right to plan for their localities and an obligation to ensure quality education.

The stakeholder society requires high-quality nursery education and care, which is why Labour's approach and policies would be fundamentally different from those incorporated in the Bill. Labour would go for quality and standards—no light-touch inspections for us and no uniform £1,100 per child, which ignores the real cost of quality education and the extra expense of children with special needs—as the right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker) pointed out. Labour would go for value for money. We would not waste investment on yet another unaccountable quango and yet more pieces of paper and bureaucracy. Labour would go for equity as between individuals and areas. Under Labour, there would be no absurd punishing of authorities such as Solihull for investing a lot of money in nursery education, nor the rewarding of authorities such as Bromley that have an abysmal record of failing to spend their allocated budgets on nursery provision. There would be no subsidies for the well-to-do mum who is already paying for a full-time nursery place, while the needs of lone parents for two and a half hours' provision a day are not met. Labour would go for common sense, not dogma built on irrational hostility to local government. Under Labour, there would be no prejudices that favour the private at the expense of the public. Labour would go for vision and the future. It is in young children that all our futures lie. If we are to build a future that brings hope and prosperity to all, we cannot afford nursery education on the chea—which is the essence of the Bill and why it will never come to pass. The Bill is just one of many policies that form the dreadful record on which the Government will be tried, judged and swiftly evicted.

Photo of Mr Michael Stern Mr Michael Stern , Bristol North West 7:16 pm, 22nd January 1996

I shall confine my comments to the parts of the Bill, principally clause 6, that concern grant-maintained schools, and I shall explain the circumstances surrounding particular effects in my constituency.

I start by referring briefly to some background items. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Islamia primary school in the London borough of Brent made two applications to form part of the state education system, but both were rejected. In deciding to reject the second application, the Department for Education made it clear in a letter to the school's governors dated 18 August 1993 that the Secretary of State accepted that there was clear evidence of denominational need … that only qualified teachers would be employed…the National Curriculum would be followed; and that the governors would seek to ensure equal opportunities for boys and girls in the new state school. The application was rejected on the ground of surplus places in existing schools within a two-mile radius which parents did not particularly want. To sugar the pill, the letter concluded that the Secretary of State's drive to reduce surplus school capacity, including through the new statutory provision in the Education Act 1993, should open up opportunities for new schools to enter the system, whether as voluntary aided schools maintained by LEAs or as new self-governing (grant-maintained) schools". In the light of subsequent events, one must ask whether the Government were serious in making that pledge at the time.

On 9 August 1994, the Government issued a weighty document entitled "Guidance to promoters on establishing new self-governing (grant-maintained) schools under Section 49 of the Education Act 1993". It gave detailed guidance to people who proposed to promote new, self-governing grant-maintained schools. Despite the issue of that document, it is interesting to note how many of the applications made as a result of it have been successful.

So far, a number of applications have not stayed the course. A Jewish school in Leeds withdrew its application. Two schools in the Wirral, which were quite close to the state system as ex-direct-grant Catholic schools, made applications that may have been approved. A school in Borehamwood is still under consideration, and a school in my constituency, called Oak Hill, made an application, about which I shall talk in slightly more detail later. That is the second piece of background information. The system was designed to encourage applications, but so far it has been remarkably unsuccessful.

In an Adjournment debate on 19 December 1994, which I felt obliged to introduce to discuss what was going wrong in state secondary education in schools in Bristol, North-West and what could be done about it, I referred to what was generally then perceived as a failure on the part of the state education system—at secondary level in my constituency—to provide what the rest of the county of Avon, which is now mercifully coming to the end of its days, would regard as an acceptable level of attainment at GCSE and A-level. I pointed out that what the county would regard as an acceptable level of attainment would not be acceptable in most of the rest of the country. I also pointed out that what distinguished the county's approach to education was a rabid opposition to grant-maintained status. I believe that that is still true today.

I then discussed the achievements of the state secondary schools in my constituency during the previous years. I pointed out that, with the honourable exception of one voluntary-aided, broadly Catholic school, every single school in my constituency had not managed to achieve results that reached even the low average attained by the county as a whole, let alone the average attained in the country.

I am pleased to say that, since that Adjournment debate, there have been a number of improvements. Henbury school has now succeeded in meeting the county average for GCSE results. To do so, it had to make such a major leap that, one year, it reached The Times top 20 of most improved schools. Improvements have also been made in other schools in my constituency. Nevertheless, it is still true that, in the near-monolithic system of local authority maintained secondary schools in Bristol North-West, only one—a voluntary-aided school—has consistently performed better than the national and county averages, and another has at last reached those averages. Several others are showing improvements.

In that Adjournment debate, I pointed out—and it is just as true today—that the Government have been in power for 15 years and, in that time, their policies have made no significant impact on educational attainment in the schools in my constituency.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

Despite the hon. Gentleman's rather tangential approach to the Bill, which he is entitled to take, does he agree that policies also need resources, the motivation of teachers and sensitive support for their difficult tasks? Does he think that the Government over the past 15 years have provided the encouragement, understanding and resources for his schools, administered locally, to perform a proper task?

Photo of Mr Michael Stern Mr Michael Stern , Bristol North West

The hon. Gentleman is seeking to draw me even further from the Bill. If he does not mind, I will continue with the trend of my remarks, during which the answers to his questions may become apparent.

I was heartened when I read an interview with the Prime Minister in The Times on 24 August 1995. In that interview, he said: We should also make it easier to open new schools and to allow new independent schools to opt into the state-funded system and become grant maintained. I was heartened by the Prime Minister's comments because I knew that an application for just such a school, in an area where it was deeply needed, had been before the Secretary of State for Education and Employment for almost a year. That application was to be before the Secretary of State for almost two years.

Oak Hill school, which was started in my constituency as a Christian-based independent primary school with strong ambitions and qualities that would enable it to provide secondary education, put forward in 1994—it may even have been slightly earlier—a proposal for a 675-place, five-to-16 school to be established in an area of undoubted educational need. There was a lack of places near the proposed school, which was to have been built in a new town in my constituency called Bradley Stoke. Inevitably, the school needed to acquire land on which to build, but that did not matter because land was available, which already had planning permission for educational purposes. The school needed to demonstrate, which would not have been difficult, that there was a lack of surplus places in the immediate vicinity, and to prove that a new school would fit comfortably into the state education system. It would have been, as I have made clear already, the only grant-maintained school in my constituency, and—with the exception of the voluntary-aided school that I mentioned—it would have been the only school in my constituency that was other than local authority maintained.

Eventually, after almost two years under consideration—a period that any business organisation would find drove it close to bankruptcy—the application was rejected by the Secretary of State on 15 December 1995. It is worth considering, in the context of the Bill, the reasons why the Secretary of State rejected that application. First, it was rejected because the Secretary of State found unwillingness on the part of the local education authority to release the land on which the school would be built, so that a compulsory purchase order would be necessary. I fail to understand why, if that was a reason for rejection, it was not pointed out to the school two years earlier. The local education authority, as I said, was rabidly opposed to grant-maintained status, so it was not surprising that it would not release the land. However, the local education authority has made it clear that it is unlikely to want to build its own school on the land for at least 10 years. Nevertheless, that was one of the reasons given for rejection.

The second, and in my view more worrying, reason for rejection of the application for a grant-maintained school in my constituency was, to quote the Secretary of State, "insufficient evidence of demand". I have a couple of points to make in that regard. First, evidence of demand comes—it was made clear in the Secretary of State's letter of rejection—from the local authority. Would anyone ask a local education authority such as Avon for evidence of demand for a grant-maintained school within its boundaries? The answer, of course, is to look for other evidence—and other evidence was forthcoming.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

Order. I have been very tolerant, but I am beginning to wonder how much of the hon. Gentleman's speech has anything to do with the Bill.

Photo of Mr Michael Stern Mr Michael Stern , Bristol North West

I am happy to explain, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Bill is about expanding powers for grant maintenance. I am trying to show that it is pointless trying to pass a Bill for that purpose if the Government are rejecting applications for GM status in the first place. I hope, however, to come to a conclusion shortly.

A local university survey has made it clear that the number of secondary school-aged children in Bradley Stoke will rise from 550 in 1994 to more than 1,500 by 1999. More than 550 new dwellings a year are going up there, and local employment is growing even faster.

Photo of Mr Michael Stern Mr Michael Stern , Bristol North West

I am sorry, but I have promised to finish soon. Yet it was deemed more relevant, when rejecting the application, that there were surplus places that parents did not want in schools in what has now become another LEA than that there was a demand for places in the neighbourhood in question.

Next, I want to examine the contrast between the results of those events and the aspirations of the Government, as expressed in the Bill. The Government would seem to aspire to expand the powers and the provenance of grant maintenance in education. Yet in my constituency not only has the only likely opportunity for grant maintenance in the state education system for the next few years been rejected, but there will be a record number of appeals against secondary school placements this year.

The Government claim as justification for their policy in the Bill the fact that they favour choice, diversity and quality in state education. So do I. Those are the education features on which I believe I was elected to the House on three separate occasions. Is it any wonder, viewing the Bill, that I intend to judge the Government more by their performance than by their policies? Is it any wonder that I should ask, on behalf of my constituents, whether—to show my concern at a Government who promise one thing and then do the opposite—I should find myself in the uncomfortable position of joining the Opposition in the Lobby tonight?

Photo of Mr Colin Pickthall Mr Colin Pickthall , West Lancashire 7:32 pm, 22nd January 1996

Is it always a pleasure to participate in education debates, because they give us the opportunity to listen to the right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson), who has unfortunately left the Chamber. He said that the vouchers idea had come to him in a dream. I think so too. In fact, I think the whole Bill must have come to someone in a dream, probably induced by illegal substances.

The right hon. Gentleman also called in aid Tom Paine who, he said, advocated spending £4 a year on educating the children of America. That is probably about the same amount of money in real terms as is spent now. One wonders whether it was a spending commitment—no wonder the French revolutionaries tried to bump Paine off. I can just imagine him wandering around the forests of 18th century America denouncing local authorities for the lack of choice in their nursery schools and inveighing on the subject of the capital programme needed to restore run-down log cabins and teepees.

To be fair, the right hon. Member for Brent, North also made a more serious point. He envisaged parents—following the passage of the Bill—taking their children and their vouchers from one nursery institution to another to find the best one. That sounds like the sort of choice that Conservative Members have been talking about all day. Is the right hon. Gentleman really suggesting that parents of four-year-olds are going to wander around putting them into one school after another—put them in, become dissatisfied, take them out again, and put them somewhere else? Under the Government's plans—even at the moment—most of them will be there for only a year anyway. The idea is preposterous and represents one of the major flaws in a proposal that has not been thought through.

Any legislation on early-years education provision, especially nursery schools, must be judged by one clear criterion: by how much will it extend and improve nursery provision? The pattern of provision across Britain has, for historical reasons, been extremely patchy—not just differing from one LEA to another, because some of them have placed more or less emphasis on nursery education, but differing within LEAs. I think particularly of the shire counties after they were reformed in the early 1970s.

My county, Lancashire, inherited extensive provision in boroughs such as Burnley and Blackburn, but virtually nothing in more rural districts and small towns. Since then, Lancashire has engaged in a long struggle to improve, and even to introduce, provision in many of its districts, especially rural districts.

To do that, Lancashire has made use of rising-five provision. Pupils are admitted full time to school from the beginning of the year in which their fifth birthday falls, as happens in many other authorities. Summer-born children are therefore already covered by the period that the vouchers purport to cover. Moreover, a large proportion of spring and autumn-born children receive one or two terms of nursery schooling under Lancashire's current scheme. The county has also used spare space in some primary schools and converted it to nursery classes; and there has been a slow but steady programme of new build of specially designed and planned nursery schools.

In recent years, Lancashire has also used a sparsity criterion to locate some nursery classes in rural areas and scattered parts such as Burscough. By these means, since 1981 Lancashire has increased proper nursery places from about 1,000 to about 4,000. In no case has this increased provision been less than enthusiastically received or less than fully taken up, yet there is still enormous unsatisfied demand, leading to a proliferation of private play schools, daycare centres and nurseries of all kinds.

Despite all this, the demand is still far from being met. Parents are not daft: they know that full-blown nursery education is the best thing for their children and, in my area at least, they know that it is best provided by LEA nursery schools and parents clamour to get their children into them.

Formerly, as a county councillor, and now as a Member of Parliament, have had irate parents queueing up at my surgeries to complain that they cannot get their children into an LEA nursery school. I tell them that the schools are oversubscribed and suggest that they try a private nursery, but they do not want to do that because they know that nursery education is best provided by LEA schools and they want their children to go to them.

Local education authorities have been forced to target their provision, often giving preference to disadvantaged families. Recent research shows clearly the considerable long-term social and cultural advantages of nursery education, so the policy pursued by authorities such as Lancashire shows a great deal of long-sighted common sense. We only wish that it had been shared by Governments over the past few decades.

The extension of nursery education by willing local authorities has been shackled, first, by the Government's tight spending restrictions; secondly, by what was formerly the Conservatives' belief—as expressed by a previous Secretary of State—that nursery education was at worst irrelevant and at best not proven to be useful; and, thirdly, by the method of calculating standard spending assessment for under-fives education.

A long-standing gripe of many local authorities is that they receive SSA for the number of under-fives in the population, but no account is taken of their spending on nursery education. For years, many authorities have collected SSA for the number of under-fives in their population and then spent it on whatever else they wished, whereas local authorities making good and decent provision have received similar amounts of money but been committed to spending it on nursery education only. That has caused some anger among the good providers. Ministers have often said that they do not want to circumscribe how local authorities use their money on under-fives provision. I understand that argument, but I disagree with it.

Recent changes in the political make-up of local authorities have meant that more and more authorities, no longer controlled by Conservatives, can spend their due resources on nursery education. That is good. The steady increase in resources directed to the ends that most local authorities aspire to achieve will eventually enable them to fill more and more of the gaps in provision in a way that parents will enthusiastically approve of, using existing criteria and expertise and broadening and targeting until the supply encompasses every three and four-year-old—therefore effectively ending the need for targeting.

The Government, however, have introduced a wheeze that will take resources away from local education authorities—a major motive behind the Bill—for a job that even this Government do not usually complain about. The wheeze is intended to finance what might well prove to be a spatchcock provision that is so uncertain that it needs a vast new bureaucracy to organise and watch over it.

The voucher scheme will secure little or no additional provision, but it will certainly dislocate existing LEA provision. It will focus on four-year-olds, despite the fact that the Department's figures show that only 4 per cent. of four-year-olds are not provided for at the moment. Not only will the voucher scheme do nothing for three-year-olds, it might hold back any extension of nursery education to them. Many nursery places in Lancashire are occupied by three-year-olds who would not be eligible for vouchers. There is a distinct possibility—indeed, a probability—that nursery schools will not replace those three-year-olds with new three-year-olds, but will choose instead voucher holders—four-year-olds.

The voucher scheme will assist those who can already afford to pay for their children's nursery education—a point made powerfully by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden)—but it will do nothing to create places for poorer families who cannot cover the shortfall between the value of the voucher and the actual cost of a place. The poorer the family, the less choice there is in everything from transport to access to information. It is facile for Conservative Members to keep saying that it is easy for everybody to shop around. It is not. In scattered areas in my part of Lancashire it is difficult to get a child to the nearest school—never mind shopping around a number of schools. It is difficult to organise transport to get the children to school, especially in the half of my constituency that has one of the lowest car ownership rates in the country.

If the Government's shaky estimate of the number involved in the scheme proves to be an underestimate, the value of the voucher will probably be reduced, further skewing provision away from the less-well-off family. My LEA estimates that vouchers to the value of £21 million might be issued to Lancashire parents of four-year-olds. That means that Lancashire's revenue support grant will be reduced by more than £17 million—65 per cent. of its SSA relating to under-fives. Of course, LEAs that have small provision will suffer correspondingly less grant reduction.

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch

As this matter has been raised outside the House several times, I want to make the purely arithmetical point that, to the extent that any LEA caters for precisely the same number of four-year-olds as it did in the previous year, whatever its level of provision, the scheme will be neutral.

Photo of Mr Colin Pickthall Mr Colin Pickthall , West Lancashire

It will not be neutral between one LEA and another. If an LEA is a large provider, it will have a large amount of its revenue support grant taken away and dissipated among good, bad or indifferent providers. If an LEA is a small provider, it has little to lose.

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch

Perhaps I was not clear enough. A large provider, by definition, currently has a large number of places for four-year-olds, and that is the basis of the calculation. To that extent, it is in exactly the same position as a small provider—if it gets one more four-year-old in year two than it had in year one, it will be in pocket.

Photo of Mr Colin Pickthall Mr Colin Pickthall , West Lancashire

I take that point, but we are, in this case, talking about economies of scale.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

I am not convinced by what the Minister just said. If a large provider such as the London borough of Newham or, indeed, Solihull has a large number of nursery places in the voucher system and has competition from other providers, who may provide more time in school per voucher or unit of cash, would it not be undercut in terms of apparent value to parents, and would not the quality of what the local authority is doing therefore be imperilled?

Photo of Mr Colin Pickthall Mr Colin Pickthall , West Lancashire

My hon. Friend is right and he brings us to the quality of local authority provision, which one or two hon. Members have criticised. In this area of education, I have never heard a serious attack, even from the Government, on the quality that is provided throughout the country by a variety of LEAs, which, for the most part, have managed to put together a first-class service against a background of dwindling resources and a non-statutory basis for provision. They have done an extremely good job. Many of us—we might be accused of being supporters of local authorities—value what is provided in our towns and do not want it to be dissipated as a result of the poorer quality, cheaper provision that we have heard about this evening.

As has been said, a horrendous increase in bureaucracy would be involved in the voucher scheme. At present, using as an example the system that I support, the local education authority receives its revenue support grant and allocates resources to nursery schools. It is a fairly simple operation. In the voucher system, the Department for Education and Employment will withdraw a proportion of RSG, the LEA will withhold from school budgets a calculated sum per pupil equivalent to the voucher for each child, taking into account termly attendance, a private company will issue vouchers to parents, the parents will exchange the vouchers at the schools or institutions, and the schools or institutions will exchange the vouchers for cash from a private company.

It all equals more frequent and more detailed monitoring and auditing of pupils, cash and numbers, and it involves an additional burden for the schools concerned. The Minister will probably make the point that some of that will change after the pilot scheme if it proves to be as burdensome as it sounds. On the surface, one is bound to say, "So much for the Government's drive against bureaucracy." It is strange how that drive always seems to create more bureaucracy than it gets rid of.

I shall mention briefly the policies on priorities. Where places are short—in most places—local education authorities have somehow to target their resources in the nursery sector. Many of them, especially Lancashire, have put in place a system to ensure that the most disadvantaged children—the disabled, those from single-parent families or from homes where English is not the first language, for example—have some priority in gaining a place in nursery school

Lancashire has, in the fairly recent past, been assured by the Minister that its social priority criteria are right. The Minister approved of them yet, in the latter part of 1995, the attempts of Church schools in Longridge, Lancashire and Lytham St. Anne's, supported by the LEA, to create nursery classes, were turned down by the Secretary of State specifically because the social needs of the area did not warrant it. At least that was a credible response, but how does the reliance on social and family needs criteria square with a voucher system that has no such criteria in an area of education where there will continue to be a shortage for some time? That leads me to the conclusion that the criterion for judging the Bill—how it will increase and improve provision for nursery education—is not being met, nor will it be.

There is further evidence to support that view. Where is the planning for the provision of the extra teachers who would be needed if a substantial number of extra nursery places were anticipated? As far as I know, there is no such planning, but I stand to be corrected.

Photo of Mr James Pawsey Mr James Pawsey , Rugby and Kenilworth 7:54 pm, 22nd January 1996

Just about the only thing with which I agreed in the speech of the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) was his comment that parents are not daft. He is right. I and my hon. Friends believe that we should trust parents to use the voucher. It gives them a real stake in education and certainly makes them, as the Leader of the Opposition says, stakeholders.

I was disappointed that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) would not—or could not—answer the question that was posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). Hon. Members will recall that my hon. Friend reminded the hon. Member for Brightside that he once said that he would have no truck with middle-class, left-wing parents who preach one thing and send their children to another school outside the area. I was disappointed that the hon. Gentleman could not respond to that question. I understand the difficulty that he had, but I should have thought that at least he might have tried. I was also disappointed that he did not respond to the question that was put to him by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who asked a question relating to costs. The hon. Gentleman failed to respond, in the same way as he failed to respond to the question that was put to him by my hon. Friend. The hon. Gentleman's technique is simply to brush aside any difficult questions.

I have to tell Opposition Members that those questions will not go away. They will stay to haunt the hon. Gentleman and Opposition Members in the House and outside. They will haunt them today, tomorrow and throughout the years.

The hon. Member for Bath asked a question about fraud. My mind was working on the same lines as his, so I contacted my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who will respond to the debate. My hon. Friend was kind enough to write to me on 18 January. I shall paraphrase his letter. He said that there would be three checks. First, all applications will be checked against the child benefit centre database. Secondly, each voucher will carry the child's name and a unique serial number. The third control will be the requirement that all private and voluntary providers be registered under the Children Act 1989, which would prevent bogus providers from joining the scheme.

I have to tell Opposition Members that I would have been a great deal more impressed by the strength and sincerity of their opposition to the Bill if I believed it to be genuine. Sadly, I doubt that it is. I believe that it is synthetic. I say that because Opposition Members have opposed all the Government's education reforms without exception. They opposed them, not for good educational reasons but for cheap political expediency. They opposed, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker) said, the national curriculum and testing, local management of schools, the introduction of grant-maintained status, the introduction of Ofsted, improved teacher training and league tables. To that catalogue we can now add another—nursery provision.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman is always extremely courteous, but it would be wholly wrong of him to mislead the House into believing that Opposition Members have in any way opposed the expansion of high-quality early-years or nursery education. The opposition has been to the methodology proposed by the Government—a methodology that we believe will hinder the expansion of high-quality early-years education.

Photo of Mr James Pawsey Mr James Pawsey , Rugby and Kenilworth

The hon. Gentleman is logic-chopping. His Liberal character has been entirely exposed. I believe that the main reason for Opposition Members' objection to the Bill is the fact that its proposals do not focus on local education authorities. I suspect that had they done so, Labour and Liberal spokesmen might have discovered some virtue in them. Opposition Members appear to believe that the only good education is local authority education, but they are wrong about that, as they are about so many other things.

Conservative Members believe in maximum diversity and choice. That choice is best provided by grant-maintained schools, which are opposed by both Labour and Liberals—although the Leader of the Opposition and the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) send their children to grant-maintained schools, exercising the very choice that Opposition Members would deny other parents.

I do not criticise either the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) or his hon. Friend the Member for Peckham for doing what I would do: sending their children to the best schools, and giving them the best education that can be found. That is entirely laudable. What I do not find laudable is the way in which Opposition Members criticise grant-maintained schools and selection, while taking advantage of grant-maintained schools and selection to ensure that their children do well. I consider that disgraceful, and I hope that we shall hear a reasoned explanation of that dichotomy.

The principle of choice and diversity runs like a golden thread through all the Government's education policies, and can be seen again in the Bill. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State introduced the Bill, she referred to funding. The legislation will cost taxpayers some £730 million, of which about £165 million is new money. It places in the hands of parents a voucher worth £1,100, which may be spent at a private or voluntary institution or, indeed, at a state school; it can also be exchanged for a nursery school place.

The legislation builds on the concept of pilot schemes, and I welcome that. The vouchers represent a major new initiative in education. I have no doubt that, as with any new initiative, there will be teething troubles—that, after all, is what pilot schemes are for—but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to assure me that the lessons that are learnt will be incorporated in the main scheme when it starts in April 1997. Some of those lessons may prove unpalatable and expensive, and they will undoubtedly require careful implementation.

The new scheme will provide a pre-school place for all four-year-olds whose parents want one. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley that it should be extended to three-year-olds, but—here I return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire—I want parents to visit schools and compare schemes. I want them to talk to providers, and ask the questions that they consider important to them.

I do not accept the deeply patronising view, peddled so often by Opposition Members, that parents must be guided and directed; my view—shared, I think, by my hon. Friends—is that the overwhelming majority of parents know best what is right for their children. I believe that they can be trusted to judge the effectiveness of one scheme against that of another. I accept that geographical constraints will play a part, but parents should not accept the nearest place available simply because it is nearest. I want parents to look for the scheme that is best for their children.

I was not surprised to discover that a Labour party policy document entitled "Excellence for Everyone"—

Photo of Mr James Pawsey Mr James Pawsey , Rugby and Kenilworth

The hon. Lady says, "Hear, hear", but I fear that she may have said it a little too soon. The document dismisses nursery education in just four lines. That tells us how much importance Opposition Members truly attach to this genuinely important issue.

Photo of Mr James Pawsey Mr James Pawsey , Rugby and Kenilworth

I shall be delighted to give way to the hon. Lady.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris , Birmingham, Yardley

I am pleased to learn that the hon. Gentleman reads Labour party documents so carefully, but the document that he mentions was not about pre-school learning; that will come in the summer, so the hon. Gentleman has something to look forward to. In that document, he will find a properly worked-out policy to provide high-quality early-school education for all four-year-olds without money being wasted on bureaucracy.

Photo of Mr James Pawsey Mr James Pawsey , Rugby and Kenilworth

I am glad that I gave way to the hon. Lady. First, I read Labour party documents for the laughs that they give me. Secondly, the hon. Lady has made promises, but we all know what Labour party promises are worth. We shall see what the new document says, and, in particular, we shall look out for the costs incorporated in it. Let the Labour party put its money where its documents are.

Photo of Mr Bob Dunn Mr Bob Dunn , Dartford

The intervention of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris) demonstrates that Labour Members have come to the debate without having worked out a policy. That is something for the future. After 15 or 16 years in opposition, they still have not worked out a policy. What does that tell my hon. Friend?

Photo of Mr James Pawsey Mr James Pawsey , Rugby and Kenilworth

I am delighted that I gave way to my hon. Friend, who has exposed—yet again—the hollowness of Labour party policies.

Let me give the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris) a policy. I hope that she will listen carefully. The Independent of 5 December claims that the right hon. Member for Sedgefield has decided to accept the Conservative scheme for nursery education vouchers if its nationwide launch goes ahead, and his education spokesman, David Blunkett, is considering a plan to trump it by offering higher value vouchers.The Independent returned to the subject yet again on 26 December, saying: Labour will offer state money to private nurseries and rewrite the curriculum for the under-fives in plans to be announced next month. Watch this space, but do not hold your breath.

I cannot say that I am surprised that the Labour party has recently discovered toddlers. We all know—the point was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson)—that what the Government suggest today will be reinvented by Opposition Members tomorrow: it will be packaged in a series of soundbites as their own freshly minted scheme. The Government's pre-school policy will bring substantial benefits to children and their parents, and will help to improve the quality and standard of state education. It will also benefit parents: as unemployment continues to fall in the United Kingdom—in marked contrast to the position in the rest of Europe, where the social chapter holds sway—more mothers will be working, and will naturally require their children to be cared for properly in pre-school education.

I was delighted to read that the Pre-School Learning Alliance had said: We welcome this plan to bring pre-schools (formerly playgroups) within a common inspection framework which will be regulated by OFSTED. This will provide confirmation to parents of what they already know—that pre-schools provide children with high quality early education and preparation for school. Vouchers will also provide much needed financial assistance to the parents of four-year-olds using our member pre-schools. I quoted that because the alliance has substantial expertise in and knowledge of this sector. I am delighted to accept and build on that expertise.

Photo of Mr James Pawsey Mr James Pawsey , Rugby and Kenilworth

I give way to the hon. Gentleman, whom I increasingly welcome as a brother.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time and for being so generous. Will he remind the House how the press release from that organisation continues and whether it follows with a number of key concerns about the Bill's proposals?

Photo of Mr James Pawsey Mr James Pawsey , Rugby and Kenilworth

I said that I increasingly welcome the hon. Gentleman as a brother. Had he contained himself a little longer, he would have heard me quote more from that press release.

I do not doubt that the alliance and my hon. Friends will find that the new system is challenging. There will be problems—I made that point earlier. After all, there are always problems with any new system, but they will be overcome.

The Pre-School Learning Alliance goes on to say, and I quote for the benefit of the hon. Member for Bath: We have said to the Government that we will do all that we can to create the new places which are required for four-year-olds but more funds are needed to train additional staff and for new premises. I believe—and here perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I are at one—that the alliance raises a good point, which I hope my right hon. and hon. Friends will consider. Clearly, funding for training is important. I do not subscribe to the view that any well-intentioned lady is automatically a good teacher. Teaching is central to this legislation.

In the state sector, the voucher will cover the cost of a part-time place in a nursery school or nursery class, or a full-time place in a primary school reception class, provided that that fits in with the admission arrangements of the local education authority. In the private and voluntary sectors, the voucher will contribute £1,100 a year towards fees. That should provide at least a part-time place and up to a full-time place in a playgroup. The voucher will be exchangeable for a pre-school place for children beginning in the term after their fourth birthday.

Parents will understandably be concerned about the quality of education. Providers of nursery education must be an institution either registered or exempt from registration under the Children Act 1989, or registered as an independent school. Alternatively, they must be a locally maintained school or day nursery. Grant-maintained schools can, of course, also provide nursery education. Those are important safeguards that will do much to reassure parents.

The aim of pre-school education must be to prepare children for the world of school. Regular inspections will be undertaken to ensure that the appropriate standards are provided. Providers of nursery education must provide a prospectus for parents that gives details of staffing, admissions, schedules and so on. The Government are anxious that children should develop skills in personal and social development and language literacy and numeracy, and have some modest knowledge of the world and its environment. Hon. Members will agree that all those are laudable objectives.

Earlier, I mentioned quality. That will be guaranteed by the Office for Standards in Education as it will undertake the inspections. When the first inspection is complete, it is up to the inspector to decide whether the educational provision is of a sufficiently high standard. The inspector may grant a full validation and recommend that initial validation be extended.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham , Coventry South East

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments. I have noted that, so far in his speech, he has failed to mention pre-school playgroups that have fewer than five pupils, especially in relation to their safety. Will he tell us something about that?

Photo of Mr James Pawsey Mr James Pawsey , Rugby and Kenilworth

The question of safety is important and I am not surprised, but delighted that the hon. Gentleman has raised it. Clearly, that is one of the aspects that inspectors will take into account when they visit those schools, but he speaks as a parent and as a man with long experience, especially in local authority administration. I believe that I am right in saying that he was formerly leader of Coventry city council.

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch

Purely as a point of information for my hon. Friend, I assure him that the settings to which the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Cunningham) briefly referred are covered by registration under the Children Act, which considers specifically health and safety aspects. That registration continues.

Photo of Mr James Pawsey Mr James Pawsey , Rugby and Kenilworth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that additional clarification.

The inspector may grant a full validation, recommend that the initial validation be extended where weaknesses have been identified, or recommend that the initial validation be withdrawn. Those are important sanctions. I am convinced that inspection will be one of the keys to the project's success.

I welcome the Bill and commend it to the House. I hope that it will receive the substantial majority that it deserves.

Photo of Mr Cynog Dafis Mr Cynog Dafis , Ceredigion and Pembroke North 8:15 pm, 22nd January 1996

It is a great pleasure to be on my feet as the only Member, it seems, speaking for Wales tonight. I am glad that there are representatives of the Welsh Office in the Chamber, although none of them is sitting on the Government Front Bench. I am glad therefore that some note will be taken of my comments.

The Bill provides a perfect example of the need for power in Wales, to enable us to pursue our priorities according to our values and in our way—a way based on pragmatism and common sense, not on an ideologically driven agenda coming from English Toryism. The issue of the need for democratic power in Wales, so that we can take our own decisions, is rising on the political agenda there. Interest in that issue will be intensified by the Bill. One of the ironic things about the Government is that they are good at devising measures that strengthen the demand for democratic power in Wales, so that we can follow our priorities.

We need to recognise, first, that the position in Wales in relation to pre-school provision and early-years education is vastly different from that in England. Nursery education is greatly important for the Welsh language. It has already been a crucial factor in increasing knowledge of the Welsh language. It is one of the main factors that has led to the spectacular growth of Welsh language education and of Welsh-medium education at primary and secondary level. That is one factor that is different.

In Wales, 90 per cent. of four-year-olds have a place in local education authority or grant-maintained nursery or primary schools. Seventy per cent. of Welsh four-year-olds are in full-time primary school education. That makes it different from England, where only 77 per cent. of such children have either part-time or full-time places in maintained-sector schools. The position is therefore radically different. That does not mean that we should be complacent in Wales—not by any manner of means. There is need for change, for improvement and for development, but we are starting from a significantly different position. That is why it is infuriating that we have this damaging irrelevance of a Bill foisted on us by a political agenda being written somewhere else.

Plaid Cymru places particular emphasis on the enormous importance and value of high-quality provision of early-years education. I do not need now to rehearse the accumulation of evidence in recent years about the educational, social and economic benefits of investing resources in early-years education. That is now well established, as is the importance of smaller classes during those early years.

The scientific and statistical evidence corresponds to one's own observations. We have all noticed the immense capacity for learning and the intense fascination of very young children for all kinds of phenomena. Adults have always had a responsibility to respond to young children's voracious appetite for learning by providing the context and opportunities to enable that appetite to be satisfied. In a modern, industrialised culture, that environment for stimulation has to be organised, and that is the case for making formal provision for educational experience in those early years.

We must also think of the importance of the opportunities that are presented by early-years education for extending the learning process to the community. That can be done by bringing parents into active partnerships with educators in the nursery schools, so that the learning process at home is enhanced. Parents' awareness of the need for an interactive relationship with children can be enhanced and constantly stimulated. We have already seen such parental experience in the voluntary sector nursery schools.

It is worth emphasising the capacity of early-years education to strengthen social solidarity—the community bonds in a society that is becoming increasingly atomised. That is why it is important to avoid selectiveness—separate provision for people from different economic and social backgrounds that the voucher system is partly designed to achieve. That system is calculated to intensify and confirm social division.

The opportunity in early-years education for the identification of special educational needs has been insufficiently emphasised in the debate. I think particularly of dyslexia and of strategies for early intervention that have been shown to be effective—and that means cost-effective as well as educationally effective. That is an important approach to dealing with special educational needs.

It is worth re-emphasising the enormous importance to the Welsh language of early-years education. That is already evident in the work of LEA nursery schools and of Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin, the Welsh nursery schools movement. A recent survey by the Welsh Language Board showed that, if they had the opportunity, 50 per cent. of Welsh parents would send their children to Welsh-medium nursery schools. That is of enormous significance and has far-reaching implications for Welsh language strategies in Wales. It certainly has a bearing on the importance of nursery education. The additional cost of providing properly resourced, high-quality early-years education would be substantial. But the question is not whether society can afford it, but whether it can afford not to make the provision.

In recognition of the importance of this subject, Plaid Cymru has, unlike the Labour party, already prepared a policy document setting out our views and policy proposals. It is a consultation document and it is being widely distributed to interested organisations and individuals in Wales. I shall make a copy available to the Department for Education and Employment and to the Welsh Office. I hope that they find it interesting. It shows a radically different approach from the one proposed by the Government.

The document's fundamental, guiding principle is the need to integrate the various types of early-years services in the fields of education and care into what is now fashionably called "educare". Those two strands must be brought much more closely together. Because there is no overall policy structure at the moment for the early years, the current scene is fragmented. There is a range of providers, a range of responsible authorities, and different standards and concerns. Social services departments, education departments in county councils and health authorities are all responsible for children in their early years and for special needs, which border on educational concerns. The providers range from schools to voluntary organisations and there is a plethora of private sector carers and educators.

Our document makes a specific recommendation that is capable of immediate implementation. It suggests that the new unitary authorities in Wales, which will soon become county councils, should establish early-years services departments to co-ordinate and enhance nursery education and child care. Those departments would work in close partnership with education and social service departments, but would be distinct from them. They would co-ordinate the work of those departments and that of other interested bodies such as health authorities, health providers, the voluntary sector, parent groups and so on. The departments would organise joint training and would establish for each county an early-years forum. They would identify development needs, inspect and register services, or at least arrange for their inspection and registration, and they would monitor quality.

Our document calls for a national strategy with targets set over a period of time to increase the provision of nursery education, with special emphasis on supporting underprivileged communities. They are certainly a priority for the targeting of public funding as long as such funding is limited in that area. It argues for increased support for current voluntary sector providers by way of grants and resources, including accommodation and the provision of administrative support. All those things can be done and are already done in part.

The Plaid Cymru document emphasises and recognises the fact that the large number of three to five-year-olds currently in reception and infant classes of primary schools contribute significantly to the 90 per cent. figure in Wales. But that does not altogether constitute a satisfactory situation and we should not be complacent. The educational experiences that three to five-year-olds may receive in such reception and infant classes may not always be appropriate in terms of curriculum or of the time that is available to meet the needs of those children.

Our document deals particularly with the need for qualified staff because, after all, the curricular and pedagogical skills that are needed for teaching children of that age are just as great as those that are required for teaching older children, or perhaps even greater. It may be that the skills are more subtle and more particular. The document calls for concentration on the training of existing staff through specific grants. Perhaps the grant for education support and training mechanism should he used for that purpose. It also calls for a curriculum that is appropriate to the developmental stage of the children. Finally, it sets as a longer-term aim the provision of full-time nursery education for all children from the age of three whose parents wish them to receive it.

Plaid Cymru accepts the public investment implications of such a commitment. Our document is an attempt to set the agenda for a self-governing Wales—something that is coming—while addressing the immediate practical priorities. Needless to say, our document rejects vouchers out of hand, as does Welsh opinion unanimously. I am talking not just about the LEAs, the Welsh education establishment and the Welsh Joint Education Committee. I am talking also about parents organisations, the Confederation of School Governors Associations in Wales, Parents for Welsh-Medium Education and parent-teacher associations in Wales, all of which are united in rejecting the voucher scheme.

According to the relevant Minister at the Welsh Office, there is no declared support amongst the representations for the proposed voucher scheme". The Minister has admitted that there is no support throughout Wales from any direction whatever. That makes one think about the Government's stated willingness to respond to the consultation process. If any attention was paid to such a process in Wales, the scheme would not go ahead. The other interesting element of the Minister's reply was his explanation of why there is no support for the proposal. He insisted that that opposition is generated by a misunderstanding of some basic elements of the scheme…and by an unsubstantiated concern".—[Official Report, 15 January 1996; Vol. 269, c. 379.] In other words, the Minister believes that educators and parents in Wales are all suffering from some kind of collective stupidity that makes it impossible for them to understand the Government's proposals. Some people might say that such ignorant condescension is offensive. But I am glad to say that it is the Minister who does not understand—it is his problem. First, he fails to understand that the notion of choice is irrelevant to the vast majority of Wales because of the scattered nature of our community. Secondly, if private or other providers enter the field in competition and have some success in attracting customers—that is what we must say now—it will destabilise the provision of LEAs and the existing useful partnerships between LEAs and the voluntary sector.

The Minister has failed to understand that there is a danger that the education experience of children whose parents might be tempted—understandably—to take up full-time playgroup provision using a voucher, rather than keeping to the part-time LEA nursery school provision, would be inferior. Evidence for that can be found in an important recent report by Her Majesty's inspectorate in Wales, the significance of which goes broader than the situation in Wales.

That report showed clearly that, generally speaking, the best provision for early-years education is in LEA nursery schools and classes. That is an uncomfortable finding for a Government who regard local authorities in the public sector as inherently inefficient, but it is good news for the public at large and it is good news for parents.

The report also stated that the cost of administering the system—and the money taken as profits for shareholders of the company that does so—would be better spent on providing resources for staff and training in schools. It also made it clear that nursery schools and classes providing for three-year-olds might be imperilled by the emphasis in the Bill on four-year-olds only.

Vouchers provide a subsidy for the well-off who are already able to afford early-years education, and they will do very little to create provision where there is none at present. The view of the Special Education Consortium—the members of which are likely to know what they are talking about—was that significant harm might be done to the provision for young children with special educational needs. All those views clearly justify the plea made to the Secretary of State for Wales from various directions not to proceed with the proposals in Wales. The plea has been made, and it will almost inevitably fall on deaf ears. I was going to say that I had good reason to hope that none of this would happen, because the election of a new Government was likely to intervene. I now have cause to hesitate, having heard suggestions that the Labour party is ready to accept such provision as a fait accompli. I trust that that will not be the case, and that the system will never be implemented in Wales.

Our current predicament emphasises once more the need for a Parliament in Wales with primary legislative powers. Labour proposes to give Wales an assembly with secondary legislative powers only, unlike Scotland, whose Parliament will have primary legislative powers. Secondary legislative powers are inadequate, for two reasons.

First, whereas primary legislation can be drafted to allow a great deal of variation and discretion in relation to the orders, it can also be drafted to allow no variation at all. Any United Kingdom Government not wishing to allow Wales to pursue its own course of action would pursue the latter course. Secondly, secondary legislative powers would at best allow a variation only within the framework established by an Act coming from the United Kingdom Parliament. Secondary legislative powers within the framework of the Bill would be totally irrelevant.

We need a Welsh Parliament to determine the priorities of education in Wales and to place nursery education within that framework. It would, of course, have a high priority. A Welsh Parliament would need to devise a plan for the appropriate promotion of nursery education in co-operation with local authorities and others. For that, the Parliament would need the power to legislate as necessary, to give the different levels of government the powers and responsibilities to design a system of education that would provide high standards, while being equitable and cost-effective. We can be confident that following such principles would mean that we would not be fiddling around with vouchers for nursery education.

We need a Welsh Parliament with the power to act, and that means the power to enact legislation. We need it now, and not as a consequence of some slow process of evolution. We are looking to the Labour Government, following the next election, to give the people of Wales that kind of power—the same power that Labour proposes to give to the people of Scotland.

Photo of Mr Iain Mills Mr Iain Mills , Meriden 8:38 pm, 22nd January 1996

I am in a somewhat difficult position as I represent an area in rural Solihull which has a scheme far beyond that proposed by the Government. The voucher scheme would disadvantage my constituents as they already have the advantage per pupil of £1,800 worth of high quality, successful and established education. The local scheme is the choice of parents and once I have cleared the matter with the Journal Office and the Vote Office I shall be presenting a petition from 12,000 parents establishing that very point. We do not want a national scheme. It is wrong to have a bureaucratic, complex and centralised system that offers every child £1,100—a system that is going to be extremely difficult to organise.

We have achieved quite a lot in Solihull and we cannot be the only ones to have done so. According to my calculations, 42 local education authorities or local councils will be disadvantaged by the scheme. We should consider what has been achieved by children aged three and three and a half.

The Government's scheme is calling into question reception classes. I shall not be voting for the Government tonight and I have made that clear to Ministers. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), for the time that he has spent discussing the scheme with me. I appreciated his comments, but I do not agree with them and I am not going to vote for the Government. As a loyal Conservative, that is a rare event for me, but my constituents will be disadvantaged by the scheme that he is introducing. Why cannot the Minister—I spoke to him about this—provide an exemption for councils with good records and find a way to resolve the situation? I appreciate his concerns about exempting Solihull and not other councils which need to be forced into a better nursery system.

In the few minutes that I have to speak in the debate, I must tell the Minister that I not only have 12,000 signatures to a petition—I did not ask for them: it was the parents' idea—but during the past two months my advice bureaux have been dominated by the issue. In Balsall Common, for example, I normally see about 12 people with personal problems, but I found the church hall jam-packed with about 70 parents. I do not accept the Minister's argument that the local education authority triggered that response. It was the parents' legitimate desire for high quality pre-school education for their young people.

The results in Solihull for three-and-a-half-year-olds are exemplary. I cannot accept that a national scheme such as the Minister is proposing is either good for my constituents in Meriden or—I hesitate to say it—good for the country. Why cannot we give local authorities greater choice? Why cannot we give parents real choice?

In my constituency of Meriden, parents will have no choice. If they are given a voucher that is worth £1,100, but the LEA already provides nursery education that is worth £1,800—with high quality education, proper teaching staff and outstanding literacy and numeracy achievements—why on earth should we go along with the scheme that the Minister is proposing? That is why I do not intend to vote for it.

I shall not go into the issue of grant-maintained schools because I do not have enough time to do so and I must avoid cutting into my colleagues' time. In my constituency, the voucher scheme is a key issue, as indicated by the 12,000-name petition. The petition is not like those that we all receive—the usual ones that people sign and send to their Member of Parliament. Those people came to see me and presented it to me with heartfelt concern.

The parents have three concerns, which I shall finish with—unlike some Opposition Members, I will not say "Finally…finally…finally". The distillation of what they are feeling is, first, that they are happy with the existing scheme, which is worth £1,800 per pupil and is working. Solihull council is hoping to expand the number of places. Secondly, they are happy with the quality of education. Finally, parents are happy with the achievements. Some of the achievements of the three-and-a-half-year-olds rising-fours in my constituency are quite extraordinary. Their start in life will be far better than it would be under a scheme which produces a playgroup situation, which would be the result of a £1,100 voucher scheme. I say to the Minister, "Please take my constituency of Meriden out of the voucher scheme." Give us the freedom to do what we and the parents want to do.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South 8:44 pm, 22nd January 1996

I am pleased to be able to follow the hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills) because his speech has been perhaps the most important of the debate. I share the sentiment which I believe lay behind his presentation—that nursery education should not be a party-political issue. I join him in that sentiment because in Newham, where 60 per cent. of the age group are in nursery education, we have a similar appreciation of such education, albeit in different surroundings. The contrast between our constituencies, which is well known, and the feelings of parents about the existing scheme and the proposals, illustrate the non-party basis for the concern, at least among many parents who are beginning to understand what the scheme is about.

The hon. Member for Meriden mentioned a petition. Parents from Newham came to me two years ago and as a result I got in touch with the National Campaign for Nursery Education. With other organisations, it organised a petition of more than 100,000 signatures, asking for wider opportunities in nursery education. Two years later, despite not discouraging the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) from talking out my Nursery Education (Assessment of Need) Bill, the Government have come up with a scheme. They did not do so following the articles in the press, written by the Prime Minister two years ago, saying that it was coming, but now it has come.

The scheme is not a scheme for nursery education. It is not nursery education as it is practised in Solihull and Newham. I charge the Minister to tell us why the title is not misleading. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) referred to early-years education. The hon. Member for Meriden referred to playgroups, and so forth. The provisions might be for early-years education, but it is not nursery education. The latter was lauded by the Minister responsible for education in a previous Conservative Administration in 1973. Circular No. 2/73, from the right hon. Lady, now Baroness Thatcher, said that we would have full-time education for 15 per cent. of three and four-year-olds, and part-time education for 35 per cent. of three-year-olds and 75 per cent. of four-year-olds, which will require 250,000 additional full-time equivalent places in 1982. That plan was scrapped, but that was nursery education.

Most people in the business—although I should not describe it as such, as that is what the Government are making it—know that the quality of nursery education is defined: there are space standards and standards for the teachers, who have had two years full-time training, and there is a ratio of nursery assistants, who have also had some training.

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch

Following the logic of the hon. Gentleman's comments, can he clarify whether he would say that reception classes are nursery education and good, and that pre-school classes—erstwhile pre-school playgroups—are, by definition, not nursery and bad? I am not trying to trap him, but to draw him out.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

The term "early-years" covers the lot, but we know what nursery education is in terms of the curriculum, which is known and understood throughout the country, the training and the premises. It is different from playgroups, some of which are very good and some not so good. It is also different, by definition, from reception classes in infants schools, because they are part of the statutory system for the over-fives.

The Minister knows of the terrible administrative problems. Because of the administrative mess-up, parents will have to give up these coloured bits of paper for children who are going to be in the reception classes of infant schools. We do not have a plan for nursery education, although all the reports of the debate will use that term. I therefore charge the Government with being misleading and I cannot absolve them from attempting to do that deliberately.

There is also the question of space regulations. On 10 January 1996, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), who is not here, replied to a question on the abandonment of the school space regulations, which are not good enough as it is. In a written answer, she stated: The final version of the regulations and the circular will take account of a number of detailed points raised. The requirements in the current regulations that bear on the health, safety and welfare of pupils will be retained."—[Official Report, 10 January 1996; Vol. 269, c. 274.] But they will not. Why are they being changed? The standards laid down by statute for nursery schools proper are to be abandoned.

What about the providers? "Providers" is a word that we have come to use in the health service, but some of the providers of the new-style pre-school education, whatever form it may take, will be proprietorial. They will not be, as they are in Solihull and Newham, local authorities. They will not form a pattern of local nursery schools attempting to meet the needs of local communities. There will be difficulties over the standards that they will have to maintain.

The documents to which I referred in a point of order earlier were in the Vote Office. There was some misunderstanding about that and I am glad to make that clear to the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire). However, his document, "Nursery Education Scheme: The Next Steps"—a misleading title, if ever there was one—says that vouchers will give parents purchasing power to choose a place that suits their child's needs and to insist on high standards… There is a wide consensus about the importance of nursery education". It goes on and on, but the Government are not talking about real nursery education.

In The Sunday Telegraph yesterday there was an article headed: School that's a home from home", with a subsection entitled, How to set up a nursery school". The article states: The Diploma in Playgroup Practice from the Pre-School Learning Alliance is the minimum legal requirement. Fifty per cent of your staff must be qualified. A child-to-staff ratio of 8-1 is the maximum allowed; 6-1 is more workable. The Pre-school Learning Alliance is doing good work. I think that it was originally known as the Pre-school Playgroups Association. There is a big distinction between playgroup provision and the present statutory arrangements for nursery education. The Government should use a different term because there is a danger that they will devalue and ultimately destroy the standards of nursery education as commonly understood at present. There is much evidence for that.

The Pre-school Learning Alliance, which was mentioned earlier, says in its brief: Vouchers will provide help with revenue costs but are unlikely to provide sufficient income to meet the costs of new premises and other capital expenditure associated with the expansion of provision. So even the alliance has some reservations.

What about inspection? If it is to be done by Ofsted, why can it not be linked with the present system of primary school inspection? Primary and nursery schools overlap in reception classes. Instead, the Bill contains four and a half closely typed pages dealing with Nursery education grants: inspections etc. Talk about bureaucracy—surely that is what is created by not using the existing schools inspection system to deal with the pre-school scene.

What does the National Association of Head Teachers—which, with the except of heads of nursery schools, has no vested interest in the age group apart from a general one in education—have to say about the inspection system? In its brief, it says: The system of self assessment that is proposed will mean that providers could function and receive public money for a year before they are inspected or validated. The voucher system is wide open to fraud and abuse. Even expensive auditing and inspection arrangements could not ensure that the proper use of public funds was safeguarded. That is the view of highly qualified professional teachers in a well known and respected association. It continues: The Government envisages the possibility of umbrella organisations, already active in nursery education"— I question that, but we shall see what the Minister has to say; I would say "already active in early-years education". The document continues: acting as OFSTED's agents in organising the inspection programme and awarding contracts to inspectors. The NAHT strongly believes that, if the proposals are to be implemented, independence in awarding contracts must be safeguarded. The NAHT could not support a situation where, for example, an organisation was awarding contracts to inspect its own members. I do not suppose that the Government would go as far as that, but the system of inspection is shown to be extremely controversial. There will be what the newspapers would call a huge shake-up in the system.

Conservative Members have been talking about parental choice. We all know what parents want. It was well expressed to me by a Conservative Member who is not here now in respect of another education matter some time ago. Those of us who are parents would agree that most parents want a system of local education that meets the needs of all the children of the area. The morality of parents and teachers means that they cannot ignore the effects of education for their children in their schools on that of children in other schools. Education must meet the total need of the community and especially the needs of any particular child at the time of its education.

A coherent framework is needed. Parents have to put themselves into the hands of professional teachers. Of course there must be consultation, co-operation between home and school through parents associations, and a degree of choice, so long as the standards are equivalently high. That is the point. That would lead to an education system worthy of name. If such a system was available to 100 per cent. of children in Solihull and Newham, it would be a worthy system.

Concern has been expressed by organisations such as Save the Children, Barnardo's, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and the Children's Society. Those organisations state: The coalition organisations recommend that one common standard of inspection, regulation, monitoring, staffing ratios, premises and equipment should apply to all voucher-redeeming services for four year old children, based on the requirements of the Children Act 1989. That Act has been mentioned several times already.

Finally, there is the question of who will be the providers. I suggest that there will be a huge new range of providers. I hope that the Minister will tell me in the next hour if my scenario is wrong. It may be that it is, but we will not know the detailed small print. We will know neither in the House nor in Committee because, instead of saying that the Minister must provide those facilities for early-years education by issuing vouchers, clause 1(1) says: The Secretary of State may make arrangements for the making of grants in respect of nursery education. All the details about inspection, standards, liaison, administration and contracts are considered "arrangements" and need not come before the House. Negative instruments, such as the two that we sent away at 3.30 today, often come before the House. They deal with all sorts of matters, such as animals, roads, speed limits and destination signs, which are for scrutiny rather than debate. Civil servants issue them and hon. Members know that they will be debated upstairs in Committee or appear on some sort of list against which we can pray. They are public matters.

The arrangements at issue here, however, will not come through such a democratic sieve and they include anything that a Secretary of State for Education and Employment may wish to do. Although matters such as curricula will be discussed, the nature of providers will fall entirely within the "arrangements" to be decided by the Secretary of State in charge. What is to prevent supermarkets from assisting or funding satellite providers at their sites? What is to prevent pre-school education providers in the United States or Canada, where pre-school education is already a business opportunity, from setting up branches in this country? What is to prevent the whole pre-school scene from devolving into a business venture? Finally, what is to stop the vouchers to be given for reception classes being extended into primary education so that, for the first time, we would have a voucher system within our statutory education system?

Unfortunately, the Bill is not really a nursery education Bill at all. The Minister must prove tonight that parents and some good Conservative Members are not being conned.

9 pm

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson , Eastbourne

I am delighted to be able to make a shorter than planned contribution to this debate.

Contrary to popular belief, although 30 or 40 per cent. of my constituents are of retirement age, depending on which statistics one believes, there has been a great growth in the number of young people in Eastbourne, including people with young families. It has resulted in a great interest in and demand for nursery education and a wide appreciation that children who have benefited from pre-school education do better later. That view has been common ground on both sides of the House this evening.

In the past year or so, I have made a number of visits to local playgroups, such as the Eldon Road playgroup and the playgroup attached to Willingdon school. I have also had meetings with the Independent Pre-School Nursery Association and its dynamic chairman, Barbara Davies, who also runs the Tots nursery in my constituency. We also have some excellent LEA provision. Only last Friday, I visited Pashley Down infant school. I am indebted to Veronica Clark and her staff for the opportunity not only to attend their assembly but to view their three reception classes for four and five-year-old children. The staff there do a good job in sometimes difficult circumstances. I hope that I can reassure them that, with the pilot scheme taking place this year, it should be possible to identify and resolve some of the practical problems to which hon. Members have referred.

Above all, the Bill will allow parents to make a choice. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, they will be "in charge". What can be wrong with that? If they are happy with their existing provision, such as the reception classes at Pashley Down infant school, they will stick with it. But education policy has recently become a problem in East Sussex, where politics often clouds important issues. It will not surprise you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to know that that unhealthy development has arisen since the county council has been run by a Lib-Lab pact. It has become a Christmas tradition for me to have to write to 400 heads and governors to tell them the true position on education funding, because they certainly do not get it from the LEA.

Last year, the so-called Strategic Forum predicted, with no particular evidence, massive cuts, including the option of cutting spending on nursery education. It was accompanied by a campaign called the East Sussex schools campaign, under the heading "Excellence at Risk". The campaign issued a document stating that there was real doubt about the survival of nursery education". That quite disgraceful series of propaganda stunts, often orchestrated by the controlling groups on the LEA, raised fears among parents, teachers and governors about the future of children and their education. At the time the campaign seemed to be purely churlishly motivated, particularly in relation to nursery education. The LEA wants a total stranglehold over all pre-school provision.

Of course, as it turns out, the overall position on spending for next year is very good. The education standard spending assessment for East Sussex has been increased by £7.264 million or 3.4 per cent. Just as important, the Government have ensured that East Sussex can increase its spending in line with the increased SSA for education. The capping criteria will enable the county council, if it chooses, to increase its budget by no less than 3 per cent. There is no good reason for schools' budgets in East Sussex to be cut in the coming year.

On the specific issue of nursery schools, we have heard today how parents will have a choice between state, private or voluntary providers. The vouchers will buy a part-time place in a nursery class or up to a full-time place in a playgroup or reception class. State school places will remain free and parents will be able to top up the voucher in the private and the voluntary sectors. We have heard about the £165 million of new money providing vouchers for 150,000 places. We have heard a lot about the effect on LEAs—provided that they continue to attract the same number of four-year-olds as they currently do, they will not lose resources. If they spend more than £1,100 per pupil, they will still be able to do so under the new system. We have heard a great deal, particularly from the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, about the alleged bureaucracy in the system. Of the £750 million available for the scheme, only £20 million, or 2.7 per cent., has been allocated to inspection and administration—and most of that money will be spent on inspection.

Almost as soon as the scheme was announced, it was dismissed out of hand by Councillor Norcross, the chairman of the education committee in East Sussex. He refused even to consider participation by East Sussex in the pilot scheme and said, I think, that it was "a political con", with no reference even to the education committee, let alone the full council. It is hardly surprising that that action has caused great anger in my constituency and elsewhere in East Sussex because it denies the opportunities to a whole raft of children in the pilot scheme year.

One way in which that anger was demonstrated was through a large petition which was gathered by the IPNA and passed to me. It contained many hundreds of signatures and letters from the parents of children in my constituency. That was a very different experience from that described by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills). The protest—spontaneously organised in my constituency—shows the deep strength of feeling on the issue. The Liberal Democrats and the Lib-Lab pact have wholly misread the feelings and needs of my constituents in Eastbourne.

The debate is really about control, and Opposition Members' obsession with the need for LEAs to have absolute control over all pre-school education across the country. We believe in choice and diversity, and we believe that to be popular with the parents of the children affected.

Photo of Mr Keith Hampson Mr Keith Hampson , Leeds North West 9:09 pm, 22nd January 1996

The last time I made a speech in this place the Whips asked me to spin it out, but I shall have to curtail my remarks on this occasion. I have 20 years' experience as vice-president of the National Campaign for Nursery Education and I am passionately concerned about the situation in Leeds. Despite the Labour authority's bland forecasts and boasts, Leeds does not have a good track record on education. If one looks at the Audit Commission comparisons, one will see that education provision in Leeds is well below half that of comparable authorities. In my constituency in north Leeds there is very little council education provision.

I must point out—I apologise for falling into the trap myself in an earlier intervention on my right hon. Friend—that hon. Members keep talking about "state" schools. Why do we do that? It reinforces the impression—which is furthered by Labour Members—that somehow or other the Government are responsible for the quality of schools across the land. That is not the case. We should call them "council" schools. The Leader of the Opposition has sent his child to be educated outside Islington and the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) has rejected her borough because the council schools are of a poor quality. The councils have designed the school structure and allocated resources and they have interfered in the way in which the schools are run.

I return to what I said by way of intervention earlier. The position in Leeds is crystal clear. In 1991 the council commissioned Leeds university to examine primary education in that city and to produce an independent report on the back of an allocation of £14 million to primary schools. Some £11 million was spent on recruiting extra teachers, so no one could complain of a lack of resources or say that the schools were understaffed. The report, entitled "Primary Education in Leeds", condemned interference by the local authority. Although that had occurred for the best of reasons, the report argued powerfully that not only had reading standards failed to improve despite the extra resources, but the straitjacket imposed on teachers by the local education authority lay at the heart of the problem.

Leeds has model schools where teachers are trained in "good practice" and teachers believe that their careers are blighted if they do not deliver that good practice. That is the culture of bureaucracy that has bedeviled British education at all levels for decades.

Of course the voucher system is an experimental measure, but we should be looking for new ways of delivering quality education. That used to happen in the public sector. We used to have semi-independent local education authorities with very powerful creative directors of education. Alec Clegg in West Riding and the director in Leicester are classic examples.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

The Government are destroying them.

Photo of Mr Keith Hampson Mr Keith Hampson , Leeds North West

The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) should listen to me. Those people are famous partly because they are so rare. We cannot say that the hundreds of local education authorities have brilliant directors of education, because they do not. That is the reality of the situation. Most local education authorities do things in the way that they have always been done and they want to continue to operate in that manner. Labour and Liberal Democrat Members reflected that mentality in their speeches today.

My right hon. Friend and I argue that we must find a way of delivering what good education is about. We know in our hearts that it is about creating a dynamic institution which has a life of its own, which has powers of innovation and which can look after itself and develop as it thinks appropriate for the benefit of the children concerned. Such institutions must be free from intervention by the council, the state and the advisors who continually latch on to them. We must have inherently dynamic and pioneering institutions.

We trust the parents; we assume that they want the best for their children. Today Labour Members have gone on endlessly—ye of little faith—as if parents have no concept of what is important for their children. They want parents to leave it to the council to determine what should be taught in schools. On the contrary, parents want to know what it is all about. They will sometimes choose a traditional school and atmosphere for their children and sometimes they will opt for a more pioneering, progressive school and atmosphere. That is the test for the market to determine.

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